All kids encounter grief, and none is too young to cope. Here's why you need to talk openly about death, and help with how to do it
Four years ago, on my November birthday, my grandmother died. Last year, on the evening of that anniversary, I was cuddled up in bed, reading to my five-year-old daughter, Charlotte, when I choked on the words. My eyes teared as my other daughter, Lauren, seven, walked into the room. “What’s wrong, Mommy?” she asked, as I wiped my cheeks. “Is it Great-Grandma?”
I nodded. My grandmother, Margaret, raised me from about age four. We were closer than most mothers and daughters. When I was young, I told her everything, including which boys I had crushes on and which girls were picking on me. As I got older, we discovered that we shared a passion for world issues and literature, which we often discussed while shopping for clothes. Even as an adult, wherever I was in the world for my schooling or work, I would call her, often two or three times a day. And she was right there when I was wheeled out of the delivery room after giving birth to both of my girls. Not surprisingly, Margaret is Lauren’s middle name.
I rubbed my daughters’ backs as my tears fell. I talked about how my grandmother used to stroke my forehead and brush my long hair the same way I now do for them. I also talked about how she was a little different than most grandmothers: She drove her expensive sports cars too fast, for instance.
“I liked running in the hallways of her building,” Lauren chimed in. “She let me be a wild thing!”
“I miss Warren,” Charlotte interjected. Her mind had turned to her uncle, who died from a brain tumour a year and a half ago, at age 34. By the time we were ready to turn off the lights, we were all weeping, peering at photos of James, Warren’s now three-year-old son. “He must be so sad not to have a dad,” Charlotte lamented. “I bet he is,” I replied.
Like many parents of my generation, I was raised in a family that didn’t show much emotion, especially grief. I was determined to do differently with my own children. Which is why I let those tears fall when I feel sad about my grandmother’s death and talk openly with my girls about their little cousin’s loss. I also share many of the stories I write about in my work as a journalist, including the life of a young victim of the war in Sierra Leone. Of course, I sometimes wonder if I’m doing the right thing. Are my children too young to handle grown-up pain? Am I burdening them with my own sadness?