My grandma died a year ago. She was the only one of my grandparents that I knew and spent time with while I was growing up because the other three died when I was quite young. My grandma lived in a different province than my family, and we would go visit her nearly every summer and every Christmas. We would stay for a few days on her farm. The highlight of her farm was a big, old, no-longer-used barn with a giant hayloft and rope swing. That’s where we spent hours of our time. Swinging on the rope and landing in hay. My cousin taught me that if we sat still, and waited patiently, cats and kittens, who didn’t otherwise let themselves be seen, would emerge from all corners. It was magical. We loved being there.
Photo by Shandy Onishenko. My grandma’s barn.
My grandma was spunky and independent and a good cook. She had an eye for beauty and added little touches like shaping the butter in the dish into a rosette. She spoke up for women’s rights and defied women’s roles, believing that there was no reason that she couldn’t do certain things just because they were typically done by men. She was fun to be around when we visited. Although my mom talked to my grandma regularly on the phone, we grandkids didn’t really communicate with her in between visits. Grandma didn’t send cards or call us on our birthdays, although she did relay some caring messages through my mom. As an adult, I visited my grandma when I travelled to her province, but that wasn’t very often. We continued to relay messages through my mom and we certainly cared about each other, but we didn’t have a close emotional relationship.
When we knew that my grandma was nearing the end of her life, I felt so many emotions. One feeling that came up for me was wondering how I could feel so affected by her dying when I wasn’t very close to her as an adult. When I shared those thoughts with a friend, my friend shared this poem with me:
When all the others were away at Mass
By Seamus Heaney
When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.
This poem helped me understand that the closeness that I felt with my grandma when we visited, and the wonderful memories that I had with her were meaningful and significant. She had affected me. The fact that I wasn’t very close to her as an adult did not diminish the meaning of our connection at other points in our lives.
Right around this time, I was reading Sil Reynolds and Eliza Reynolds book, Mothering and Daughtering. This wonderful book highlights the connections of mothers and daughters and offers ways to stay connected through a daughter’s teenage years and into adulthood. It also highlights the importance of our own family lines.
When my grandma died, I also realized how important it felt to share this experience with my children. I wanted to show them what my grandma meant to me, how to honour the life of another, and to teach them about death.
In the last years of her life, my grandma had difficulty talking. With very few words to say, she concentrated on telling people that she loved them. Isn’t that incredible?
I am grateful to say that my grandma’s death was peaceful and without pain.
So with my husband and two young children, we travelled to my grandma’s province for her funeral. With all of these thoughts coming together, I wrote the following and shared it at my grandma’s funeral.
A mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a great-granddaughter. That’s the line of grandma, to my mom, to me, to my daughter. Grandma is my line of women in this world, and my daughter continues it.
Sil Reynolds defines mothering a daughter as: “Raising your daughter to become herself.” Each in our own way, I have watched grandma do that with mom, mom do that with me, and I hope to do that for our daughter.
Grandma’s death touches me in a deep place: it connects to my experience of being her granddaughter, to my mom’s connection to her mom, and to my hopes, wishes and desires for my daughter and my son.
Because we lived in a different province, our visits to see grandma were less frequent than if we lived closer, but our visits were longer. We stayed on grandma’s farm for a few days nearly every summer and every Christmas. We were welcomed with hugs and we explored the farm and the hayloft while grandma and my parents were in the house. They were probably visiting sometimes and peeling potatoes other times. Grandma also drove to our province for many of our significant events. Grandma was full of life, and spunk and spirit and she was fiercely independent – never wanting to be beholden to someone. Her strong faith was woven through her relationships and decisions.
As we knew grandma was nearing the end of her life in the past weeks, my mom has often been in my thoughts. My mom spent very meaningful time with her mom in these past weeks. Throughout the past years, I value the commitment my mom made to driving the miles and spending time with her mom, and to long phone conversations with her mom. I wonder, and will ask my mom more about how her mom touched her heart – the times she felt her mom’s support, the times she longed for more support than she got, the times she felt honoured to be there for her mom, the things she admired about her mom, the special moments she remembers sharing with her mom, and the ways my mom forged her own path. And my mom’s faith is also strong, but it is her own, not grandma’s. My mom became herself, with a heart open to welcoming people in.
Recently, we have been noting the similarities in the way my daughter looks with how my mom looked as a child. And my daughter is full of spunk and spirit and she is fiercely independent, and full of so much love – carrying the line of women in her appearance and in her personality. To me, grandma carried a legacy of women standing up and saying what they need to say: I see that in her, in my mom, in me, in my daughter. We’re not a quiet bunch!
And in these last weeks, it became so important to me to share stories about grandma and to share her funeral with my children. To show them the presence of God woven throughout the beauty of nature, the beauty of each person, and the beauty of relationships. It brings a sense of showing them the meaning of our lives. As the great poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Sharing my grandma’s funeral with my children was very meaningful to me. For my children, it was a positive and supportive way to be exposed to death. My son reached out with one finger and touched my grandma’s cold hand in her coffin. They had lots of questions.
The part that really engaged our children was my grandma’s burial. After her funeral, we drove through the countryside to a beautiful village with rolling hills. Outside the village was a small church. This is near the land where my grandma’s ancestors settled when they arrived from Russia. This is the church where my grandma was baptised. She was buried in the graveyard near her parents, and her husband who had died about 30 years before. There were tall trees all around, rolling fields beyond that, and wind moving the leaves. It was beautiful.
I have a distinct image of my grandma’s coffin with its large peach and teal bouquet of flowers on top, with my parents standing arm-in-arm behind it.
My children felt the beauty of the setting. The reality of my grandma’s body being lowered into the ground made it all real. We watched her grave get filled with dirt. A life ended, a soul moved on to be with God, a body buried in the ground.
I had brought some children’s books about death along, and on the long drive home, my children wanted to read and re-read a book they called, “that coffin book”. The name they gave this book let me know that the time at the graveyard around grandma’s coffin was the experience that left an impression on them.
The book that they called “that coffin book” is Grandpa and Me: We Learn About Deathby Marlee and Ben Alex. This is a book my church had when I was young, and the memory of it stayed with me strongly enough that I bought it for my children. It’s an older book, and a religious book. I choose to paraphrase some of the wording to fit more with how I talk about death and God with my children. What I love about the book is the pictures and the storyline. The book is filled with beautiful photographs of a young girl, Maria, visiting her grandparents on their farm prior to her grandpa’s illness or death. During Maria’s visit, a kitten dies, and Maria and her grandpa bury it. Later, when Maria is back at home, her grandpa gets sick and her family visits him in the hospital. He dies shortly after and there is a photo of his coffin at the funeral. The book ends with Maria visiting her grandma at the farm, and remembering her grandpa.
It was touching to watch my kids process what death means. My daughter was 2-years-old at the time, and as she made sense of death, she also became aware of being alive. She said, “It seems like we’re not dying,” and “It’s sure taking a long time to die.” Such great insights.
For any of you thinking about talking with your children about death, here’s a great video. This video is a mortician talking about the importance of talking to your children about death. It focuses on children’s concerns about traumatic deaths, but it has great content and a very important message.
Another fabulous children’s book relevant to this topic is I Wonder by Annaka Harris. This book is not about death, but it is about embracing mystery. A very important concept when we talk about death.
An outstanding book on the concept of grief is Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. This is for adults and children alike. The beauty of this book is that it deals with the concept of grieving, and highlights that we grieve for big reasons, small reasons and our own reasons.
Our lives begin, and our lives end. Beautiful souls come into this world, and beautiful souls move on. A great gift you can give your children is to talk to them about life and death. This too, connects right back to the concept that every person you will ever meet has infinite worth.
Books Referenced in the Post:
Mothering & Daughteringby Sil Reynolds and Eliza Reynolds – this book has two parts, a part for teens to read, and a part for moms to read. The teen part is written by daughter Eliza, and the mom part is written by mom Sil.
Grandpa and Me: We Learn About Deathby Marlee and Ben Alex – I choose to paraphrase some of what this book says in order to fit more with how I talk to my children about death and God
I Wonder by Annaka Harris
Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen