When I was five years old, my pet guinea pig died.
I remember that sunny summer day like it was yesterday. I returned home from camp and, Charlie, my very first pet, was sitting in his cage. I ran over to play with him but when I reached inside to pick him up, his body was stiff. I was devastated. I sobbed for a straight hour and was inconsolable for days.
Death has an impact on us all, but it can really imprint on a child. The lasting impression of my little furry rodent friend dying still lingers with me to this day. But as an adult, I recognize that the loss of a pet can be a gradual way to introduce children to mortality and the inevitable circle of life, despite how heartbreaking it can be.
Fast forward to parenthood, and my children’s first experience with death, which was the sudden loss of their Nana. Forget gradual—without warning, I had the challenging task of immediately arming my kids with the tools to manage their grief.
My stylish mother-in-law Lynne was a creative free spirit who filled our family’s lives with a lot of color. She was from London, Ontario, Canada but chose to winter in Ft. Myers, Florida so sometimes we went to see her and other times she flew to us. Either way, it was always an adventure. Whether painting, decorating gingerbread houses, planting flowers, collecting seashells at the beach, or visiting a safari park, she showed my son Jaxon and daughter Dahlia how to live each day with creativity and fun.
But in March of 2016, just days after her 70th birthday and after a recent breast cancer diagnosis, our sweet Lynne died of complications from chemotherapy treatment. Jaxon and Dahlia shared their grandmother’s birth month and had just turned 9 and 4, respectively. As a result, March now brings with it an element of bittersweetness because of the void that we all still feel.
That horrible disease robbed Lynne’s grandchildren of time. Time to enjoy proper English tea parties using the fine china that was passed down from her mother’s mother; time to learn the family’s legacy of knitting; time to perfect the best brush strokes to use when painting with acrylic paint on canvas; and time to share the world of Harry Potter, a book and film series she loved, through her eyes. Naturally, without her, thinking about their Nana makes Jaxon and Dahlia sad. But as their mom, I encourage them to focus on the joy she brought them and the wonderful memories they were able to create together.
So, when Jaxon wakes out of his sleep, scared and with eyes filled with tears because he had a dream about his Nana, I let him know that she’s just stopping by for a visit. My faith and the many experiences I’ve had with the loss of loved ones has prepared me for these moments, so as opposed to fearing death, I can show him that there are aspects of beauty in it, guiding his emotions to a more uplifting place. And when Dahlia tells me that she sometimes hears her Nana’s voice and that she answers back, I don’t challenge her encounter, but instead, accept it, and I encourage her to accept it as proof that Nana will be with us always.
Grief is a process and it can sneak up on you and smack you in the face when you least expect it. But I’m teaching my children to embrace it—that while they will never get completely over the loss, when they feel what they need to feel in those mournful moments, they’ll eventually get through it.
Lynne was my bonus mom: a confidant, mentor, and dear friend, so I miss her terribly but often put my grief on pause so that I can be strong for the kids and my husband. However, I recently listened to the words that came out of my own mouth and I found them to be comforting to me as well. In an odd way, hearing my children’s accountants of their grief tends to console me because they keep Lynne alive, but truth be told, I’m a little salty that she hasn’t come to visit ME yet! I am, however, thankful that she chose them as her vessel for communication. She couldn’t have picked purer messengers.