*you may need a tissue - grab it now*
I think it's a safe guess that most of you out there know that I recently lost my grandfather and my great uncle. And that I have been trying to help my 4-year-old wrap his brain around death and heaven. Two events in the last week have really touched my heart, and reminded me just how complex these ideas are for children to understand.
As I pulled out of the preschool pick-up line one day last week, my son asked me if he could listen to "his" music. As I reached to switch from the radio to the CD, the last words we heard from the radio were, "... all the love is gone." My son caught this part of the song and asked me, "Mom, all the love is gone???" His voice was a mix of shock, sadness, and misunderstanding. How could all of the love be gone? I quickly reassured him that it was just a song, and that of course there was still love. After all, he still had the love of his parents, his sister, his grandparents, and lots of other people. I reminded him that he still loved all of the same people, too, so all the love was not gone, after all. I thought all was well until I heard him say quietly, "I think all of Great Grandpa Jim and Uncle Henry's love is gone...." My heart ached, and my brain scrambled for a way to help my dear little boy understand. "Sweetie, even though they are in heaven, we can still think about them and remember the time we had with them. We can still love them even though they are in heaven." I know my son continued to ponder these ideas long after the conversation was over, and I hoped for a way to be able to help him just a little bit more the next time such questions should arise.
Two days ago, we attended a family get together to celebrate my grandmother's birthday and Mother's Day. It was the first time my son had been to my grandparents' house since my grandfather died. After a great meal and plenty of time spent playing with his cousins, it was time to head home. We said our goodbyes to a dozen family members and loaded into the mommy-van. A few minutes down the road, my son asked me, "Where was Great Grandpa Jim?" Deep down, I knew that this question was coming. It's the first time he's had to face the idea that death means someone is gone. That someone is missing from the space in your life that they used to occupy. That they are not coming back. My husband glanced my way with an "OK, you're up...." look. I reminded my sweet boy that Great Grandpa Jim is in heaven. He responded, "Grandma still loves him," and continued with some other hard questions, most notably, "Does everybody die?" Thankfully, I found the words to answer these questions - though I'm sure those words were given to me at just the right moment by the One who's really in the driver's seat.
I am so thankful that we are nearly always in the mommy-van when these questions come up. I don't think that I would have the presence of mind to answer these questions if I was looking into the face of my son who, at 4 years old, is having to learn about death. He knows that his Great Grandpa is gone. He misses him, and that breaks my heart.
While losing someone is sad, I have always felt the greatest sadness for those left behind, who have to deal with the empty place in their lives. My grandfather's death was the end of an earthly presence for someone who had lived a very full life. It was his victory over a disease that had caused a long, slow decline. My son's most vivid memories will be from a time when we (adults) already knew that my grandfather was dying. My heart aches for my grandmother, who had a front-row seat for 60+ years - who watched my grandfather go off to war and welcomed him home, who bore their 6 children, who worked, traveled, and celebrated with him, and who is alone now. My heart aches for my Mother and her siblings, who also remember him as a strong, hard-working man. My heart aches for my cousin, who spent several years as a teenager living with my grandparents, and who learned some great life lessons from our grandfather. As the time passes, my sorrow fades, but it's dredged up again each time my son - my sweet boy - says something that reminds me that there's a hole in his life, too. I am heartbroken for my little boy who senses this hole, and can't yet understand why God would take his Great Grandpa to heaven or how that's better than here with the people who love him.