I have struggled with my mom's cancer diagnosis since the day my sister told me. I skipped most of the stages of grief and went right for depression.
With each chemo treatment and each hospitalization and each time we hoped for good news, I saw her strength and vigor decline sharply. Her body betrayed her a little more every day. Now, it takes two people to help her out of bed and into her wheelchair.
I can imagine few things more grueling than watching a loved one waste away from this brutal disease and its brutal treatment.
When her treatment changed over from possibly curative to palliative, I realized that I needed to talk to Grace about the fact that Grandma would not survive this disease.
I took the opportunity when Grace told me something that she used to do with my mom “before Grandma got sick.” We talked about the fun things they'd done together, how my mom always took her to kids classes at the garden center.
I burst into tears (something I had been doing at least thirty-seven times a day), and I asked her if she was aware that Grandma might not get better from this sickness.
She was not aware, but she did not want to talk about it any more.
A few weeks later, I told Grace that not only was Grandma not going to get better, but that Grandma was going to die sooner rather than later. She still did not want to talk about it.
At one point, our family doctor told me that she had only a few weeks left, and I arrived home hysterical. The kids, of course, wanted to know what had happened, why was Momma crying so much? I told them that Grandma was going to die very soon.
For a while now, my mom alternates between conscious and confused. She doesn't always make sense; she isn't always thinking clearly. For a while, she seemed sometimes to be in another place, smiling and staring, but I haven't seen that in a while. She's mostly just sleepy now.
When we thought it was the end, I asked Grace if she wanted to say goodbye to Grandma. I didn't have that opportunity when my own Grandpa passed away, and I've always wished for it.
She said she did, and I took her along to my mom's house.
She didn't really want to say goodbye. She wanted to stand at the foot of Grandma's bed and look at her. She wanted to play near Grandma's bed. She wanted to blow a kiss and say “hi.”
She did finally say “bye Grandma!” when we left.
As you know, Grandma didn't pass that weekend. Grace makes artwork for Grandma and plays on her bed (when she's sitting up in her wheelchair) and says goodbye when we leave. She keeps the feelings and the reality of all this at arm's length.
I really want her to talk to me the same way that my mom wanted me to talk to her when my grandpa died. I dreaded the times that she came into my room. I didn't want to talk; I just wanted to cry alone. I suspect Grace feels the same way now, so I try not to push.
I don't think she understands the hole that will grow in her heart when Grandma passes away. Or maybe she does, and that's why she's keeping a distance in preparation for that.
I started seeing a therapist (against my own wishes but at the request of my psychiatrist), and he suggested getting a lot of books from the library and reading them with Grace.
Grace hates to hear me cry. She hates it. She will get up and leave the room or cover her ears. She won't sit and listen to a book if it makes me cry.
Joe reads these books. I sit in a chair close by and cry while he reads. The books really are lovely, and they make us think nice thoughts about heaven and family and grief and moving on when we've lost someone we love so much.
Once in a while, Grace will bring up something from one of the books in a conversation later on. Sometimes, she just listens while her dad reads and that's the end. I hope that someday, she'll decide to talk about her feelings and how all of this is affecting her delicate heart.
Anyway, here are the books.
Kids Books on Grief
- Grandma's Gloves – This book is beautiful. Grace and I read it years ago, and the subject matter took me by surprise. In the beginning, the little girl and her grandma do things together and obviously share a close bond. And then, about page 3, the grandma dies. Even then, I cried and cried. It made me think of Old Grandma and how important she is to me and how she will eventually die someday. The rest of the book is about how the little girl remembers her grandma by doing the things they loved and how she honors her memory. It ends on a positive note, showing that life goes on and we'll be okay even when our loved one is gone.
- The Invisible String – This story is not really about death. It's about the invisible string that connects each of us to the people that we love. It connects us when we are at work or school, when one of us travels to a faraway place, and when one of us dies and goes to heaven. Our hearts are always connected.
- The Scar – This book may be told by a child, but its raw emotion will touch any adult. The little boy's mother died during the night, and he deals with it in the only ways he knows how. He worries and worries and worries. He gets angry. He hurts himself. Eventually, he heals without having realized it was happening. It had me sobbing by page 2; this is real life and real emotion. This one is not to miss.
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children – Forrest Gump said, “Dying is just a part of life, I guess,” and that's how this book treats it. Every living thing on Earth is born (or created in some way), lives, and dies. This book is about the middle part – the time in between our birth and our death. One reviewer on Amazon says “It celebrates life at the same time that it explains death. It's a definite keeper in my library.”
- God Gave Us Heaven – Wouldn't it be great if there were a book where a child had all their questions about heaven answered by a wise, Christian parent? Well, that's what this is. A polar bear cub has all the normal questions, and her father gives her Biblically sound answers. The illustrations are beautiful, too.
- Heaven is for Real for Kids: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back – We have had this one for a long time, and Grace loves it. It's about a little boy who has a near death experience and visits heaven. He recounts all the wonderful things he saw and heard and did, including what it was like to be in the presence of God and Jesus. At the end is an update on him and his family. While this one isn't specifically about dying, it is very comforting for Grace to read about the amazing splendors of heaven from someone who's been there.
- Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss – This book is a slightly odd story that explains and validates the grieving process for kids and adults alike. It emphasizes that grieving is a process and that it's different for every person. I don't completely understand the soup metaphor, but it has a good message, and it contains a lot of the ideas that I've written about in my journal and here on this blog. It's worth reading even if the soup thing is strange and confusing. (It has more 5-star reviews on Amazon than any other book on my list.)
- The Next Place – This book really upset Grace. It talks in abstract concepts about going on to “the next place,” about how our bodies will be left behind, about how we won't need to see the faces of our loved ones. She needs heaven to be more like it's described in Heaven is for Real, a tangible place with loved ones and Jesus nearby.
On Amazon, The Next Place is highly rated by both Christians and Atheists. It doesn't specifically say anything about heaven or about angels or God, but it is ethereal and optimistic. It talks about a transition to the next place, how our spirits will go on after our body dies, and the love of our friends and family will last forever in our hearts. It's really a beautiful book.
- Angel Catcher for Kids: A Journal to Help You Remember the Person You Love Who Died – We haven't started this yet because it feels like cheating. The book is called an Angel Catcher because it acts like a Dream Catcher, holding on to the memories of the person who's become an angel. There are prompts and exercises inside that help kids to record thoughts and memories of their loved one. (There's also an adult version. We have both.)
- Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies – This is an art therapy book that starts long before your loved one passes. It helps kids to express their feelings as their family member begins to change, gets sicker, and finally dies. It deals with holidays without that special person, things you can do when you feel sad, all kinds of topics. It's basically a workbook with lots of space to draw and write about their experience.
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