It’s been just under five weeks since my father-in-law was admitted to the hospital with pain in his chest and trouble swallowing. It’s been exactly four weeks since he was released from the hospital and moved to at-home hospice. He’d been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier, but we were told that, at 95, it was likely his life span wouldn’t be compromised by the cancer and that he could easily live for several more years, maybe even into his 100s. At the hospital, it was discovered that the cancer had suddenly metastasized through his bones and lungs and throat. There was nothing that could be done to prolong a decent quality of life. He died on the sixth morning of his hospice care, and we miss him very much.
One of the harder parts of saying good-bye to him was and has been trying to explain to our four-year-old son, Jackson, who was very close with his grandfather, what death means. But we started that conversation long before he could possibly have any understanding of death. We started it when we spoke about his grandmother, Drew’s late mother, Joan, who passed away in 1982. We spoke of her early and often — she was always part of the conversation. We showed Jackson photos and Drew shared stories about his mother. When Jackson started asking why he never saw her, we explained that she was in the sky and in the air around us and that he couldn’t see her the same way he could see his other grandparents, but sometimes he could feel her. “Sometimes, when the wind blows across your cheek,” I said, “that’s Grandma Joan saying hello.”
When my own grandfather died a couple of years ago, Jackson wasn’t quite yet two. He’d met his great-grandfather a couple of times, but there was no way he could comprehend that he was no longer alive. What does “alive” and “dead” even mean to a not-yet-2-year-old? Not much. I didn’t tell him, when I left town for a few days, that I was going to my grandfather’s funeral. But I did show him photos of my grandfather and told him I needed to go say good-bye and that Papa Jack was going to go live in the sky and the air now like Grandma Joan. A few days after I returned home from the funeral, Jackson told me he saw Papa Jack by the slide at the playground while he was with his babysitter. I showed him a photo of my grandfather. “Him?” I asked. “You saw him at the playground?” He nodded. A few days later, he said he saw him again.
Earlier this past summer, our friends’ dog, Lucy, died. We used to live a few doors down from our friends, so Jackson knew Lucy well. We saw her on her walks all the time and she even came over to our apartment occasionally. I thought about how Jackson’s grandfather was 95 and how time, as precious as it is, is not guaranteed to last. I wanted him to begin understanding, as best as a 3-year-old might, the finality of death, and different ways we can celebrate lives and comfort those who grieve their loss. I explained to him that Lucy was now in the sky and the air like Grandma Joan and Papa Jack and that our friends were sad because they would miss walking her and seeing her cute face and hearing her footsteps down the hall in the morning. We went to the store and bought some flowers and brought them home and arranged them in a vase for our friends, and then Jackson made a card. I told him he could write whatever he wanted, but that he should mention something about Lucy. He wrote: “I Miss Lucy,” and then he drew a picture of her. I told him that would make our friends feel better — that when someone dies, it’s nice for the people who are sad to know that other people will remember the person or pet who’s gone. “Remembering someone after she dies is the best way to keep her in our hearts,” I said.
When we found out Drew’s father only had a few days to live, I immediately called a child psychologist friend of mine and asked her what we should say to Jackson and whether we should bring him to say good-bye to his grandfather. She said it wouldn’t harm him if we did and that, given how much it would mean to Herb, it would be a kind thing to do. I told Jackson that Grandpa was getting ready to go in the sky and the air like Grandma Joan and Papa Jack and Lucy and that we needed to help him feel ok about going. “We need to go tell him we love him and that we’ll always keep him in our hearts.” And that’s what we did. My friend also recommended this book, The Invisible String, so I bought it and read it to Jackson, and we talked about how there is an invisible string from Jackson’s heart to his grandfather’s heart and that, no matter where his grandfather is, if Jackson pulls the string, Grandpa will know he’s thinking of him.
It’s been just over three weeks since Herb died and I don’t know how much Jackson truly understands. We talk about his grandfather every day, to keep his memory alive and keep him in our hearts. I’ll mention him when we eat his favorite food or listen to music he liked. The other day I talked about how Grandpa liked to keep his apartment very warm and that I always dressed in layers when I went over because I got hot easily. “I bet wherever he is now, he’s nice and cozy,” I said. And Jackson replied, “When we go to his house again, we should wear layers because it gets hot!”
While we were at Herb’s home during his hospice care, we found letters he’d saved from Jackson. One that Jackson wrote earlier this year said simply, “Hi! Love, Jackson.” We’ll save the letters and show Jack when he’s older. We’ll tell him how happy he made his grandfather, what a joy it was for him to get those letters in the mail. I’ve told Jackson he can write another letter to his grandfather some time — that he can write as many letters as he wants. “How will he get them?” he asked. I told him we can tie them to a balloon and the balloon will take them up to the sky. We haven’t done that yet, but maybe we will.
Jackson has been asking when I will die and when Drew will die and when his other grandparents will die and when he will die. “We’re all going to die!” he says, almost cheerfully. It is such a hard concept to embrace, even as an adult, but I don’t want him to fear it, and I also don’t want to lie. “We will,” I say, calmly. “Everyone dies, but most people don’t die until they are very old and have lived a long, long time and have lots of people who will remember them and talk about them and keep them in their hearts.”
I tell Jackson it’s ok to miss his grandfather — that missing him is another way of loving him. “And sometimes when you feel a breeze across your cheek,” I say, “that will be him saying hello.” I say it to him, I say it to myself.