"Goodbye to Grandpa"

Dealing with death is uncharted territory for my young daughter. But she is no stranger to loss.

Single mother's story of helping her daughter come to terms with the loss of a grandparent

My father died a few weeks ago after a short, sudden battle with cancer. On the night he passed away, a full moon lit the clear autumn sky, illuminating the dark, empty roads that led my mother and me to the hospital. When we arrived at his bedside at 3 a.m., my father was already gone. Mom and I sat next to him numbly for hours, trying to make sense of a loss that seemed impossible to comprehend.

Eleni was home in Brooklyn that night, staying with her godfather, Michael. He cared for her the rest of that school week while I tended to family matters, so it was a few days before she heard the news. Each night when I spoke to Eleni by phone, I tried to summon the courage to tell her, but when I heard her voice — so small and innocent — I decided to wait until we could speak in person.

Unfortunately, that moment didn’t come until Eleni arrived at the funeral home later that week, with friends and family already gathered. Not knowing why we were all assembled there, Eleni skipped into the lobby happily — and when I saw her, my heart shattered. Eleni had always adored her grandfather, an upbeat, vital man who was far more active than I despite his 79 years. And as a child of a single mother, she looked to him for guidance, wisdom, and a steady hand, regarding him as the most important man in her life.

Eleni knew that her grandfather had been ill, but in her six short years, she’d so far been spared grappling with the concept of death. As I studied her trusting eyes on that sad night, I struggled to tell her of Grandpa’s passing. I tried to find words that were comforting and true to the values we hold, and I explained sincerely — perhaps a bit feebly — that Grandpa wanted so much to be with us, but he no longer could be. His spirit was taken to heaven, I told her, and soon his body would follow.

That night and in the coming days, Eleni held up like a champ. She passed out flowers at the funeral, placed a few of her drawings in the casket, and said that she missed Grandpa but wasn’t sad. If she glimpsed me crying, she’d try to cheer me. “Mom, don’t make that squiggly face. I want to see a smile.”

At first I believed, or hoped to believe, that Eleni was really OK. But as the weeks have passed and the pain of losing her grandfather deepens, a different picture has emerged. Lately, she cries before school and tells me she doesn’t want to leave me. She says that life isn’t the same without Grandpa (“Who’s going to teach me to hit a ball or play with me in the yard?” she’ll sob). And — as if evoking her earliest loss — she’ll ask new questions about her birth mother or the circumstances surrounding her adoption. “Mom, do you think my Chinese mommy is dead?” she’ll say out of the blue. Or, “Mommy, if you had two babies, would you keep me or the other one?”

It’s difficult to understand how a child’s mind works and how each little spirit processes grief. But I wonder whether all this loss in Eleni’s early years will take an indelible toll: Will she ever again love freely and big-heartedly? Will she believe that the grownups in her life will always be there to care for her? Will she know that she is whole and good, and not in some way responsible for her loved ones’ absences?

For now the questions in our lives loom larger than the answers. But questions bear the seeds of conversation — seeds which, someday, I hope, will flower into insight about Eleni’s world and about the ways our family can heal together.


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