How I helped my grandson with grief when my daughter died.
February 11, 2001
Each night, before I go to bed, I wind the musical water globe for Cassy, so that he'll hear, "Hey, Jude". I kiss my fingertips and touch her picture, tell her goodnight, I love her and I miss her. Adam is always asleep when I go through this ritual. A few nights ago however, he awoke and silently crept into where I was. He watched, then came to me, asking to be held up so that he could do as I had done. I watched as he kissed his little fingers, touched them to her picture, told her goodnight, he loved her and he missed her. He smiled at me afterwards. Apparently, he thought this was just a fun thing to do. I wasn't sure if he even understood what he had done. Maybe he received comfort. Whatever the ritual was to him, it didn't seem to be negative. I thought that perhaps it might even be good for him, in that he was, in essence, "given permission" to grieve with me.
How much he understood about our ritual, became clear to me four nights later. We wound the musical water globe, kissed our fingers, touched Cassy's picture, told her goodnight, we loved her and we missed her. This time, Adam didn't smile. Instead, he became quiet and put his head on my shoulder. He said he was scared and wanted to sleep in my room. I held him in my arms, smoothed his hair from his temple and waited for him to go to sleep.
He broke the silence with his small, sad voice.
"Grandma, I miss Cassy."
"I know, Adam. I miss Cassy too."
"Where is Cassy?"
"Cassy is in heaven."
"Why is Cassy in heaven?"
"She's an angel."
With that, he snuggled into my arms and went to sleep. I thought that was the end of that. I couldn't have been more wrong, as I found out the next night.
"Grandma, why is Cassy an angel?"
"When someone dies, they become an angel and go to heaven."
"Where is heaven?"
"In the clouds."
"Cassy is in the clouds?"
"Yes, Cassy is an angel in heaven in the clouds."
"Why is Cassy in heaven?"
"Because she's an angel and she has to do special angel work that can only be done in heaven."
"How did Cassy get up there?"
"She has angel wings."
"How did Cassy get wings?"
"All angels have wings, so they can fly like birds."
Again, he snuggled into my arms and went to sleep. I started to wonder how many more questions he had. I worried whether I would have the answers or not. I hoped he wouldn't ask any more questions. I thought he was satisfied with what we had talked about. He wasn't.
"Grandma, where is Cassy?
"She's in heaven, in the clouds, remember?"
"But I looked for her and I didn't see her."
He looked for her. The seriousness of this, was beginning to sink in. This was way more serious to him than I originally thought. He was listening to what I was saying, remembering it and thinking about it. He had questions. He wanted answers. He wanted real answers, not the "I'm putting you off until you're older" answers. I was close to panicking. What should I tell him? What would he understand? What was too much of an answer? What wasn't enough? How could I expect him to believe something I wasn't sure I believed? I begged my brain to go into high gear and give me the right thing to say.
"We can't see angels when they're in heaven."
"Angels have so much work to do, they can't stay in one place long enough for us to see them."
"But I want to see Cassy!"
I could hear the tears in his voice. I felt his frustration and need. It matched my own. What I would say next, he would believe for a long time to come. Maybe years. Maybe the rest of his life. I couldn't remember the last time something I said, meant so much. I took a deep breath and hoped that I wasn't about to say the wrong thing.
"The only time we can see angels is when we're asleep."
"They can only come to us in our dreams."
"Cassy comes and sees me when I go to sleep and dream?"
"Yes, Cassy comes and plays with you."
"Do I play with Cassy too?"
"Yes, you have a lot of fun."
"Is that why we have to go to sleep?"
"Yes. Angels can't come to us unless we're asleep."
"I'm going to go to sleep now so Cassy will come in my dreams and we can play."
He went to sleep so fast and so easily, I know it was because of the promise to see his Cassy. I didn't think I said the wrong thing. I felt pretty good about the answers I'd given. I thought I'd weathered the worst. I thought the hard questions were out of the way. Last night, I found out, I'd thought wrong.
"Grandma, you said Cassy was sleeping. Why is she sleeping?"
"I said Cassy comes to see you when you are sleeping, remember?"
"Oh, yeah. Grandma, I'm scared."
Uh, oh. Here was confirmation that I had told him the wrong things. He was scared.
"Why are you scared?"
"I'm scared of monsters."
"Cassy won't let monsters come here."
"Cassy will stop the monsters?"
"Yes, that's part of her job as an angel."
"How did Cassy get to be an angel?"
I suddenly found myself wishing it HAD been fear I was dealing with. No matter what his fear might have been, it would have been far easier to handle.
"Why did Cassy die?"
Here it was. One of THE questions I'd dreaded and hoped I wouldn't hear. How was I supposed to answer this? What would he understand? What should he be expected to understand? Which one of the many answers floating through my mind, should I give?
"It was her time."
"She was in an accident."
"God needed her."
"She stopped breathing."
"I don't know."
Should I be brief? Should I go into detail? I realized that this was of greater importance than just about anything else I would ever say to him. My mind raced. I tried to remember what I had told my girls about death when they were his age. I couldn't think of a single thing. That's when I remembered, they weren't this young. He's only 4 1/2! I took a deep breath and hoped what words came out of my mouth, would be the right ones.
"It was her turn."
"Yes, everyone is going to die. They have to wait until it's their turn, so they can be angels like Cassy."
No response. I waited, hardly daring to breathe. I wished I could take back the words I'd just said. I just knew they weren't the right ones.
"Why was it Cassy's turn to die?"
"Cassy's work while she was here with us was done. She had to die and become an angel so she could do angel work."
"She comes and plays with me when I dream sleep and she helps people. That's angel work?"
"Yes, Adam, that's angel work."
"Does Cassy help you?"
Of all the questions I had expected, this was not one of them. How did I answer this one? Did I tell what was in my heart? Did I tell Adam how much I wanted to believe that Cassy was all around me, holding me and brushing the hair back from my temple with the "mother's touch"? Did I tell him she gives me signs that she is with me in spirit and I can feel her presence so strongly at times, that I expect to see her standing before me? Did I tell him how she helps me on my most difficult days, by sending friends I know and strangers who will become friends, to give me comfort?
I knew he wouldn't understand any of that. At least, I didn't think he could. So, I told him something else.
"Yes, Cassy helps me. She dries my tears, when she has you wipe them away."
The darkness of night, could not hide his smile. As he snuggled into my arms and drifted off into his dream sleep to play with Cassy, I silently thanked her for giving me the right words. "Good angel work, Cassy. Thanks for your help. You're a wonderful angel. Goodnight. I love you. I miss you."