I was six months, a teenager, in my twenties and in my forties when each of my grandparents died. I always felt a certain sadness (except as a baby, of course) but it didn’t seem to have a large impact on my life. They all lived locally, but I was particularly close to my maternal grandmother. She died at 99 years old, after 15 years of progressive dementia, so the loss was gradual. By the time of her death, it was a relief that her suffering (and ours) was over.
I know times have changed. Grandparents are not so “old” anymore. 70 is the new 50. Older people are more vibrant, vital, and engaged in life than in the past. They are tech savvy – a lot of them – and seem more relevant and connected to younger generations. This, coupled with a closer relationship with my parents – both emotionally and geographically, must explain the grief that I see in my own children over the loss of their first grandparent (my mother.)
My children were aware that their Bubbe had cancer. We did not belabor it, but they knew that she received treatment and did not always feel great. You can’t protect children from bad or sad things happening in life, but you can teach them the skills to cope with adversity. They know that some people get cancer and are cured (like me, who had early stage breast cancer) and some people die from cancer.
As my mother started her descent into her losing battle with cancer, my children were aware that hospice was involved. In her final days, they allowed me the space to be with my mother while my husband tended to their needs. They watched and learned what it means to be a family and to help one another.
One of my son’s came by my parent’s house toward the end and said, “My friend’s mom (who was a hospice volunteer) said that the hearing is the last sense to go.”
“Why don’t you whisper into Bubbe’s ear and tell you love her?” I suggested. So he did.
At my mother’s funeral the children sat with their first cousins all in a row, right behind their parents. Their gentle tears were a tribute to the grandmother they loved. Several of the grandchildren served as pallbearers. They came to the cemetery and participated in the burial by shoveling dirt on the casket – a Jewish ritual. They comforted each other, as well as their parents and grandfather. I was touched by their maturity and the depth of their grief.
Recently my children were looking at videos of their younger selves on the computer, as they love to do. My husband and I drifted away to read the paper and wash dishes. We weren’t paying attention to who was left watching what. Our 10 year old appeared quietly, visibly upset but denying anything was wrong and went to bed. When I went up to check on her a few minutes later, she was under the covers and crying.
“I was watching the videos and I saw Bubbe,” she said.
“I guess you haven’t seen Bubbe since she died,” I replied. Weird, I know. She had watched a video of her 7th birthday party, and my mother was there.
“You don’t have to protect me from your sadness honey. We can share our sadness. I feel sad too. I still can’t believe that Bubbe is really gone,” I told her. We laid in her bed, hugging and crying – grieving together.
And once again I was touched by the extent of my 10 year old’s grief and grateful that she knew the love of her Bubbe. I guess I witnessed our family’s version of the famous saying by Alfred Tennyson. And I do think it’s better to have loved someone and lost them, than never to have been loved by that person at all.