How My 7-Year-Old Helped Me Cope with My Grandmother’s Death


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It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m preparing to visit my grandmother in hospice care. I know she’s entering her final days and I’ve been trying to see her as much as time allows. As I’m zipping up my boots, I hear my daughter in the hallway. Piper has one arm in a sweater and is searching for a missing shoe.

“Hun, what are you doing?” I call. She pops her head around the frame of my bedroom door.

“I’m coming with you,” she replies, scrunching her brow as though it were obvious.

“You are?” I ask, wondering where she got the idea. I hadn’t asked her to come or told her she needed to. I simply said I was leaving for a couple of hours and that I’d be back before dinner.

“I want to come see Gigi,” she declares. Before I can reply she leaves the room to finish getting ready.

For a brief moment I wonder if it’s a good idea. I’m not sure if my grandmother will be able to speak today, or if my daughter will be scared or have nightmares afterwards. I’m wondering if her last memory of her great grandmother should be seeing her so frail, so barely there as her body begins to shut down. She has never seen someone so close to death before. Even as an adult, I’m nervous each time I visit her now.

“Are you sure you want to come?” I call. “I’m not sure she will be able to talk to us today.” I’m trying to gently warn her about what to expect because I’m not sure she understands.

But my daughter, who is 7, marches back into my room, her shoes tied and her coat zipped. She places her hands on her hips and gives me a small glare. I know better than to argue. “Okay,” I nod. “Of course you can come.”

When we arrive at the hospice unit, my daughter is calm as she marches up the path. She makes casual conversation about the architecture of the building as she strides through the doors. After signing in, I show her where the family room is so she can watch T.V; coming in for a visit only if and when she is ready. Then I tiptoe down the hall to sit with my grandmother, expecting her to be asleep.

To my surprise, my grandmother is having a good day — what would turn out to be her last good day.

She is awake when I enter. She smiles and holds my hand. She asks me to rub lotion on her itchy arms and I do so, as gently as I can. She says a few words then nods off mid-sentence. A few moments later she is awake again and tries to tell a story that I don’t understand. Something about horses. I think of how she loved taking country drives and hope that maybe she is dreaming of one.

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When I see my daughter standing in the doorway, I whisper to my grandmother that Piper is here. Instantly, with as much strength as she can muster, she calls to her in the same sing-songy voice she’s always used. Her eyes are half-open as she croons, “Pipeeer, Pipeeer.”

Slowly, my daughter enters the room and sits with me next to the bed.

Her willingness to do so surprises me. In recent years, my daughter has been more standoffish with my grandmother, who always tried to win her affection. But as anyone who knows children can tell you, the harder you try to get them to pay you any mind, the harder they try to ignore you.

Now here Piper stands, confronting something most adults find intimidating — and doing it without hesitation. She doesn’t say much, but sits next to the bed cooly, as if she feels it’s her duty to do so. If she’s afraid, she doesn’t show it. I’m glad that my grandmother can feel her presence this one final time.

In the days before my grandmother’s death, as I was tangled up in my grief, all I could see was loss and sadness. I couldn’t see what my daughter saw.

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Always the entertainer, my grandmother motions for me to hand a photo album to my daughter. She instructs her to search for a picture of me as a child with “something … something” (she can’t think of the word for “spoon”) stuck to my nose. I know which photo she’s referring to, so I help finish her sentence.

“Yes, that’s it!” she replies. Then nods off again, head to her chest.

Piper and I stay a bit longer. She leaves the room for a while, then comes back in again. I watch my grandmother sleep. I put on soft music for her to listen to. Piper waits patiently as I hold my grandmother’s hand and wonder about why my daughter is not afraid. I, myself, am a bit terrified of what’s about to happen. I’m afraid of what a world without my grandmother looks and feels like.

I’m afraid of her pain; I’m afraid she is scared to die.

That night, after we read Harry Potter in bed, I cry into my pillow next to Piper. I am overcome with emotion, knowing the end is near. Piper rubs my back, calmly. My child seems level-headed and stoic about the natural way of things, perfectly willing and able to understand something that feels so complicated and painful to me.

She isn’t as attached to my grandmother as I am, no. She’s only had for her seven years while I’ve had her for 32. But her view of death feels more simplistic than mine. She reminds me that old people die and that Gigi is very, very old and lived for a long time. She tells me that it’s okay. And for a few moments, before I go back to my explosive, guttural sobs, I believe her.

In the following week, my grandmother stops eating, then drinking. My daughter comes with me to see her again, but this time she doesn’t wake. While my mother and I are leaning over the bed, my daughter takes a photo of us with my grandmother, or what is left of her. I discover it later on my phone and think that most people don’t bother to take a picture of the dying but for some reason, my daughter did. It simply didn’t occur to her not to.

It’s an odd thing to have, but I cherish it. Because in the days before my grandmother’s death, as I was tangled up in my grief, all I could see was loss and sadness. I couldn’t see what my daughter saw.

She heard the sweet words that were whispered. She saw the hands being held and the care surrounding my grandmother’s body as it folded into itself, so clearly ready to fade back to the earth. She saw love being offered and so she captured it, perfectly.

My grandmother died four days later.

Now, when I look at the photo my daughter took, I don’t see a body so close to death anymore. I don’t see lungs struggling to breathe or limbs growing cold. I don’t feel the sadness so intensely.

Instead, I see the love that makes it all okay — something my daughter saw all along. And even though I wasn’t ready for her to go, I realize that it’s all still there, that love can’t fade like a body does. Now when my daughter rubs my back and tells me that it’s okay, I’ll know that it’s really true.

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