My mom and my oldest daughter, Avery Jane, always had a special bond – a bond that transcended the typical grandmother-granddaughter relationship. My mom just got Avery. Avery has loved to read since she was old enough to hold a book in her chubby fingers, which my mom the English teacher ate up. Even as a baby, when nursery rhymes were her favorite, Avery would sit in my Mom’s lap with a stack of books beside them, and they would churn through the pile. My mom always had a quirky book waiting for Avery – something unusual that never failed to strike her fancy. They also shared a love for colorful clothes and sparkly accessories, Avery making it a priority to examine every inch of the jewelry my mom loved to stack on. One of their more atypical, favorite activities was to peruse my Mom’s herb garden, my mom telling Avery the names of all the plants and letting her sample each in turn, all the while picking off the garden predators. Just the other day, during a conversation about caterpillars, Avery out of the blue said “Jola (her name for my mom) hates caterpillars because they eat her parsley.”
When it became apparent that my mom would not survive her battle with brain tumors, I was racked with turmoil about how to talk about it with Avery. Throughout my Mom’s sickness, Avery’s love and acceptance of my mom had been unwavering. She never commented or hesitated to be close to my mom as her appearance and physical condition changed, and they read books until the very end. It felt unbearably cruel to tell my tiny daughter that this source of unconditional love and acceptance was going to fade away. My grief for Avery almost exceeded my own personal grief. Whereas I had the blessing of having my mom for a short thirty-four years, Avery only had five. Five years with your soul mate seems like nothing at all – a short prelude, not a complete story.
So I did the only thing I knew to do. I told her the truth. I told her in a way I thought she could best understand and process. When I left to take care of my mom in the last weeks of her life, I told Avery that I was going to take care of Jola because she was sick and that she was not going to get better. My daughter cried and told me she did not want Jola to die because she still wanted to see her. And I understood exactly how she felt. My husband and I explained death to Avery within the framework of our religious beliefs, and we were gentle but blunt. It is extremely difficult to sugar-coat death. Over the next few weeks, the questions came. “If Jola’s soul is in heaven, where will her body be?” “Can I talk to Jola when she’s heaven?” I related so completely to Avery’s questions because they were the questions that looped through my own mind day in and day out. One day, the questions stopped, and I noticed that Avery talked about my mom without sadness. I asked her if she was still sad, and she’s said “no, Jola is with God, and he’ll take care of her.” Acceptance. Not only had she accepted it, but she had accepted it so much more quickly and trustingly than I had.
I am not telling you this so that you can use it as a template of how to deliver difficult truths to your children. This is our story, and I handled it instinctively, doing what felt right for us. I read books, I talked to friends whose opinions I trust, and in the end, I did what I always do. Armed with the most information possible, I felt my way through it with the support and help of my husband. And in the end, Avery was my template, showing me the healing and comfort that comes with faith.