“My daddy’s coming back ALIVE!” Five-year-old grandlittle Ayden announced, determination glinting in his eyes.
I panicked. Twenty-two people gathered in this house, I thought, and nobody else is in the living room when the child says this?
“He is coming back!” Ayden repeated. I couldn’t ignore the boy–I had to engage with him, talk him through the painful topic.
“Your daddy’s in heaven,” I told him, pulling him onto my knee. “When we go to heaven, we will see him there.” I bit my lip and swallowed, but the tears filled my eyes anyway. Criminy. I’m supposed to be helping him and I’m crying.
“Lala, when will we go to heaven?” Ayden looked like he was ready to pack up his overnight bag.
“When we die. Everyone who loves Jesus goes to heaven when they die.”
“Are you going to die, Lala?” Ayden reached up and touched a tear that meandered down my cheek.
I squeezed him. “We all will die, Ayden.”
“In motorcycle crashes?”
“People die in all kinds of ways. But most of us get really, really old before we die.”
“Was my daddy really old?”
“No, Honey, he wasn’t.”
“Are you really old, Lala?”
“Not yet, Love. Not yet.”
It would be a wonderful thing if being a grandparent was all cotton candy and Disney movies, with an occasional visit to the park thrown in. But it’s not. Sometimes these precious treasures bring us their hurts, problems, troubles, worries, fears–all the yucky stuff. And just like that, a delightful visit descends into a worst moment.
My ad hoc panic and punt strategy carried the day when Ayden brought up his dad. His father had died about a year before I married his grandfather. I didn’t feel qualified or privileged to have that conversation with the child. Later, I discovered that Ayden had launched this gambit with several family members in his own little poll.
This conversation with my grandson left me with teaching bruises. Maybe they’ll help you.
- It’s okay to cry. You won’t damage your grandchild if you cry. It could even be helpful, demonstrating without words that everyone is sad sometimes. If the child seems worried over your tears, reassure him.
- If there’s a Big Event in the child’s life, talk with the parents to find out how they are responding. I did not want this conversation with Ayden, but his mother and I had talked about his daddy’s death enough that I knew my response was consistent with what she told him. (Next week, we’ll talk about what to do when your understanding isn’t consistent with the parental view.)
- Speak simply. Don’t tangle the problem up in fancy words that are beyond your grandlittle’s understanding.
- Offer comfort. You will never go wrong comforting your grandchild. Ever.
- At the first opportunity, tell the child’s parents about the conversation.
- They understand more than we give them credit for. Speak truth.
- Accept help. The first funeral my daughter attended was for her great-grandfather. She was 12. She began to weep before the service began. As I cuddled her, my dad asked me if he could share his take on what happens to a person after death with my daughter. I watched as the two of them sat quietly in the rear of the sanctuary, and I saw the tension in my daughter’s face melt into peace. Hurray for Grandpa! (See what he did there? Since I was present, he asked before acting. Great idea.)
It could be that you will live your whole life and never be the first responder to a painful question from a grandchild. That might even be a good topic for prayer. But if hard topics come up, please don’t shrug them off or refuse to engage. Speak from love, and you won’t go wrong.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5 (ESV)