As a parent, I naturally prefer to shield my children from pain; and when my girls were young it was easy to keep the cruel world locked firmly out. But as they grew older, it became harder. Whether it was a skinned elbow from a fall, the tears from a mean schoolyard bully, or the sorrow that comes from losing someone special; pain is another part of life we learn to adapt to. Recently it became, even more, a part of our lives.
A few weeks ago, our family lost someone incredibly special to us, my husband’s father, and my daughter’s grandfather, whom we affectionately called “Duna.” Duna, which comes from the word “Chief” in Zulu, wasn’t a typical name for a grandfather, which was one of the reasons we loved him. He chose it for himself, feeling the name Grandpa, Saba, or Papa would age him prematurely.
Instead of candy, he gave good advice. Instead of simply a good time, he showed us a different perspective. He always played fair but never let us win, making the (seldom) victory even sweeter. Duna was a fighter, plain and simple, fighting a debilitating disease called Erdheim Chester for over ten years. Unfortunately, on June 26 he lost his fight quite suddenly.
With oven mitts on my hands and my brow sweaty from cooking, I received the news that our beloved Duna was gone. It was 10:30 am. I was informed there would be a funeral in just three short hours. In Israel, they strive to bury the body as soon as possible so the deceased’s soul can begin its ascent to heaven without delay. I was in the thick of Shabbat food preparations and now I was running up against a shortened deadline. I raced around my apartment like a dog searching for its tail. I had to finish making the challah, walk the real dogs which we were dog-sitting for my in-laws, get ready for a funeral and somehow tell my daughter’s the sad news. Having too much energy to burn and not enough mental energy to focus, I harnessed my in-law’s dogs and headed down to the school to pick up my girls.
People passed me with cheery faces, asking me how I was. I told them the truth, that I was far from okay and related the news of my father-in-law’s passing. Unfortunately, that’s how my daughters found out, from me repeating the news to friends.
Back at home, while I was running around the house looking for a funeral dress, my eldest made lunch for her two younger sisters, but when she called out that “the food is ready,” neither of them came to the table. I went to their room to see what was happening.
My youngest had her headphones on, lost in a TV show, and my middle daughter was curled up in her bed crying. I pulled back the covers and held her, tears staining my own cheeks. I asked her if she wanted to go to the funeral. She said, “no.” I asked if she wanted a friend. She said, “yes.” Minutes later, there was a knock on the door, and my daughter’s tears began to dry. Pulling the headphones away from my youngest’s ears, I asked what she wanted to do. Her response? “I want to finish the episode.”
When my husband arrived home to collect the family, the middle and youngest didn’t wish to go. My oldest, who was sweeping the kitchen at the time, stoically stuck out her chin and said, “I’ll take care of my sisters.”
The next week, their grieving patterns stayed the same. My oldest helped around the house, my middle spent time with friends and my youngest distracted herself with as much screen time as we would allow. This led me to conclude that grief, even in children, is as individual as their thumbprints.
I can’t say whether I handled things the “right way.” Perhaps I should have hurried the girls home instead of sharing the news with friends first or stayed behind with my children instead of attending the funeral. Or maybe it was a tough time and I handled it the best I could.
Grief is not an easy emotion to handle. I think the pain we feel from the loss is the same. What's different is how that pain is expressed, as evidenced by the three different reactions I saw in my daughters. I feel it is important to allow others the freedom to grieve in their own way, even children. And while there is no clear-cut remedy for the pain of grief that suits everyone, I have learned that compassion, love, and understanding can go a long, long way.