'Mommy, What Does 'Die' Mean?'

It never occurred to me that her little brain was trying to put together the pieces and understand the immense sadness that filled our house. She just didn't have the communication skills.
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If you walk into my living room at exactly 7:00 p.m., you will hear my husband and I reciting the same line at exactly same time. Actually, we don't say it; we sort of sing it to the rhythm of 'peek-a-boo,' except we ask, "Whose turn is it?"

My daughter will giggle and answer with either "Daddy's turn!" or "Mommy's turn!" The lucky recipient gets to read her a story and tuck her into bed.

I'm not going to lie; there are many times when I am fervently hoping that she will pick Daddy. Then again, sometimes she will go for long stretches of picking Daddy and I start to feel like the last kid picked for dodge ball in gym class. Last Monday night, she picked me.

We sat together in our oversized rocking chair and read a book. When it was finished, I turned off the light and held her against my chest. It always surprises me how during the day -- with her giant personality -- she can appear larger than life. However, when I hold her tiny 2 ½ year old body against mine and gently rock her, she still feels like a newborn baby.

This is my favorite part of Mommy's turn. Sometimes she will just relax, other times, she mentions funny tidbits from her day. That night, she asked me a question.

"Mommy, what does 'die' mean?"

I held my breath. The weight and intensity of the question lay like bricks on my chest. My father-in-law had passed away only two weeks prior. His death was unexpected.

Our oldest child was extremely close to his grandfather, who we all called Grampy. At 13, he was the perfect age to share in Grampy's hobbies; hunting and fishing. Admittedly, not high-interest sports for his 2-year-old sister. Grampy had a boisterous voice, and my daughter usually hid upstairs for a while when he came to visit.

After he died, my husband and I were concerned about our son; this was his first experience with death. We tried to help him see it as a process and natural part of the life cycle. To assist with the grieving process, a friend recommended we work together on a scrapbook so that he could "see" all his favorite memories and feel comfortable talking about them. What we neglected were the little ears in the next room that had been listening all week.

After what felt like an eternity, I responded simply, "Die is when you go up to heaven."

Without missing a beat, my daughter replied, "Mommy, Grampy is dead. He's dead."

Her words cut through my chest and left a raw pain. I thought she was just too young to understand what was going on. She and Grampy rarely saw each other. She never asked about him, and candidly, I didn't think she would even remember him a month from now.

I was wrong. I was wrong. I was so very wrong.

It never occurred to me that her little brain was trying to put together the pieces and understand the immense sadness that filled our house. She just didn't have the communication skills.

"Yes, honey, he is." I finally replied," Grampy is up in heaven now."

"Grampy is hurt." She whispered softly. "He's sad."

"No honey," I explained, "Grampy was sick, but now he's in heaven and he's all better. He doesn't hurt anymore."

"Grampy not hurt anymore. He's in heaven. He's happy." She repeated the words in her sweet little voice.

Even in the dark, I could see her blue eyes processing all the new information. That was enough for tonight. If I remember her next comment correctly, it was something about Elmo.

I told my husband the story when I came downstairs, and I knew from the pale look on his face that he was as shocked as I was. Over the course of the next few days, my daughter continued to ask us questions, and randomly reiterate the information.

For seemingly no reason at all, she would loudly announce, "Grampy is dead. Yeah, he's dead."

It was strange and a painful to hear her say those words; so factual was her tone that at times it felt sickeningly cruel. A few times she said it when we were in public, and I immediately felt as though I was being unclothed. This was a fresh wound, and not one I wanted to share with the produce aisle at Whole Foods. I answered with a quick cheerful, "That's right sweetie!" and then immediately redirected her to something else. "Now look at these grapes, would you like green or purple grapes?"

Last night I was setting the table for Sunday dinner. I wanted to cheer everyone up after the somber events of the past few weeks. I made an Italian family favorite -- chicken parmesan, homemade pasta and a big antipasto salad. In the drawer where I keep our special napkins, I found the place settings we use on holidays. The top one was still filled out from Thanksgiving with the words "Grampy."

"He's really dead." I whispered to myself, and felt a tear slide down my face. I guess we all had our ways of reminding ourselves about his absence. Regardless of our age, we all understood that his life was important, beautiful, imperfect, worthy of our love and deserving of our grief. We just had different ways of communicating our grief.


I wrote this article four years ago shortly after my father-in-law passed away. My daughter is now almost 7, and still reminisces about her grandfather on a weekly basis. I can't believe how much she recalls about his life; part memories and part stories we've recounted so many times, they've become real to her.

In the book I co-authored titled The Learning Habit, I included a chapter on communication called Message Sent = Message Received. My favorite quote from the chapter is from Peter Drucker, a management consultant, educator and author: "The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn't being said."

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