Two days ago I made the mistake of mentioning to Annabel that the next day was my grandmother’s birthday. Mistake because when you say the words “birthday tomorrow” to Annabel, you have to be prepared to deliver on the cake and celebration. Annie started asking when we were going to buy her a present, what kind of cake she was going to have, when were we going to her house. My gramma passed away eleven years ago, so there was no house to go to – at least, not the way Annabel meant. I told Annabel that, like Maddie, my gramma lives in our hearts. She accepted this and I hoped that she’d forget about it, but of course she didn’t because she’s three, and three-year-olds never, ever forget anything.
Yesterday, the first thing she said to me when she got out of bed was, “It’s your gramma’s birthday today!” I told her that we would bake cookies to celebrate, since one of my grandmother’s greatest pleasures was making food for her loved ones. Plus, then we’d have cookies to eat. Annie was excited about this idea, and so we got to baking.
After the cookies were in the oven, Annie said, “When the cookies are done, we will take them to my Great-Gramma’s house, and we will sing her happy birthday.” I reminded her that we couldn’t go to my gramma’s house, but that we could sing her happy birthday anywhere. “But why, Mama? Why can’t we go to her house?” So I finally said, “Because…she’s dead.” The word “dead” is not one I particularly enjoy saying (unless I’m referring to a dead spider), and it’s not one I like to use around Annabel. As I’ve mentioned before, we follow Annie’s lead when it comes to her sister – we don’t saturate her with information, just what she asks for.
“Why is she dead, Mama?” I tried to keep it simple, telling her about old age instead of cancer. She looked at me and then she said, “Reilly says my sister Maddie died.” “Yes, she did. Do you know what that means?” She took a sip of milk, then said, “It means that she can’t play with me. ”
Waiting for the cookies to finish baking didn’t hold her interest, so Annie went to play with her dolls while I tended to the food. I rocked James while I watched Annie happily play, and for just a minute I let myself imagine what it would be like if Madeline was here to play with her siblings, and my grandma was here to help me bake.
Jenny, Bloggess says:
You are an amazing mother, my friend.
Heather – no words. This post is beautiful. Happy Birthday to your gramma. Mine has only been gone almost 6 years and every day I look at her cactus and try not to cry. ((((HUGS))))
Rachel (sesame ellis) says:
Damn, that is a powerful post. Thank you for always sharing what must be so very painful to type.
Jayme Kubo says:
Ditto what Jenny said.
Long-time lurker here, Heather. That last sentence was one of the most powerful I’ve ever read (and I am a long-time, now retired newspaper editor). Thanks for your post (along with all of your others). You’re among my daily “check-ins.”
“It means that she can’t play with me. ” – That line made me cry!!! So sad!! I so wish Maddie was with you guys as well. I also think James looks a lot like Maddie. Do you think so too Heather??? I think it’s his eyes & forehead. Death is a difficult concept for little ones but you’re really doing a wonderful job trying to explain it to your little girl! Lucky little ones to have you as their Mama & Mike as their Daddy!! xo
I love you.
(And I wish all spiders were dead it is SO HARD to bring wood in from the woodpile they could be RIGHT THERE.)
Tears streaming down my face, Heather………………..
yeah, I wonder too.
Out of the mouths of babes. It made me cry too. What a wonderful family you are raising Heather.
I wish I knew what to say but I do not. Only a million wishes that you were watching Maddie and your grandmother as well.
Jaxon talks about “his grandma” all the time. I’m pretty sure he’s talking about my grandma who died well before he was born. When I say something about her, he talks about her like she’s still here… sometimes it makes me sad, but mostly it just makes me smile. I wish I knew what to say about Maddie, but it’s already been said. I wish she were still here to play with Annie and be a little mother hen to James.
Debbie A-H says:
So many hugs.
Happy birthday to your gramma. I love that you baked cookies on her special day. Hugs to you.
Susan A says:
I had a moment like that today when my son mentioned that his toys need two people to play with them. Broke my heart since I recently had my second miscarriage.
Kathy Shipstad says:
WOW does James look like Maddie in this photo. Very cool!
“It means that she can’t play with me.” So simple, yet so heartbreaking.
I’m glad Annie has people to tell her about Maddie and your Grandma. That’s how they stay alive — in memories and in your heart.
I grew up in Annie’s position, without my older sister. And I’ve always had an inherent understanding of death as a result. It’s an odd dynamic, as I fed off of the sadness of others as a young child. It’s like I didn’t have my own emotions about my sister early on; I inherited others’ emotions.
Then I remember a time — around age 6 or 7 — when I realized I wasn’t sad in the same way they were. I was more disappointed and emotional over the “what could have been”s.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it’s very different from my mom’s sense of loss. She lost a person who was part of her life; someone whom she knew and loved. I missed out on knowing this person entirely, so my sense of loss is very different and centered around what could have been. (though there is some sadness too; it’s largely centered around my mother, as I hurt for her loss.) It’s difficult to explain, but I’m starting to see that loss of what could have been in Annie — in the way she understands that she’s not here to play with her.
In any event, that just sucks. I wish there was a way to “fix” these sorts of hurts.
That’s a great way to put it. “She can’t play with me any more”. How wise of Annie.
My MIL passed away two weeks ago. Aside for the grief of losing her, part of my grief is that it’s hard for my daughter to grasp what happened, since we live so far away, which means she didn’t get to witness her quick decline. To her, Grandma is the same as when she last visited her. When my husband had to fly out for the funeral (he was originally flying out to see her one last time, ahe died the day before he was leaving), I wished we could go too (can’t, too pregnant to deal with flying with a toddler, assuming my OB would allow it). I told her that her dad was going to say goodbye forever to his mom, her grandma, but she didn’t get it.
The questions will probably start in earnest at Thanksgiving, and at Christmas. I might borrow Annie’s explanation, it might be easier for her to grasp it. It’ll still hurt.
Such a sweet post. And may I say James looks like Maddie in that picture. I’ve seen a few where I think he looks like Annie, but not that one.
Sending lots of hugs and hope. I once overheard our twins explaining that their brothers (one who died before they were born and the other died when they were 2 1/2) “lived with the flowers”. It is so hard to explain what we ourselves don’t understand. xo
I just love Annie’s love for birthdays, they are one of my favorite things too. I hope she always keeps the enthusiasm, and that these moments of remembering those who have passed will bring you guys more happiness than sadness.
That killed me. Days like these must be unimaginably hard.
Such a beautiful and heartbreaking post. I admire your strength, Heather!!!
I am a Child Life Specialist, and I thought I’d mention a couple of books you might be interested in looking at with Annie when she is ready…we use them a lot with siblings of children who are dying or have passed away, and they seem to work really well. They are all story books that give explainations about death in a beautifully non-specific and non-religious minded way.
The Next Place by Warren Hansen
Where Do Balloons Go? by Jamie-Lee Curtis
What’s Dead Mean? by Doris Zagdanski
Hope they help xx
Thank you!!!! These are all great!!!
Jess Z. says:
I do that all the time…my mom died almost 11 years ago, and my 4-yr-old son will ask sometimes, “What’s your mom’s name? Where is she?” I always say she’s in heaven and watches over us, she is our angel. I hate saying “she is dead”…it sounds so cold to me. Then I sit and wonder what it would be like to have her here helping me, playing with my children. I miss her.
July 23 is my grandmother’s birthday, too. She would have been 88 this year. So thankful she got to meet my first son, who was 4 months old when she passed away. Miss her every day.
There’s a brilliant book that I’m sure you’ll be able to get over there called ‘Badger’s Parting Gifts’ by Susan Varley (ISBN 1854305263).
Well worth checking out!