This week, my family and I said goodbye to a very important influence in our lives. We lost my grandmother, a woman whose strength and independence has been characterized as a family legacy. She had the same confidence that I see mirrored in my own daughter. The fact my little girl so closely resembled her great-grandmother was a huge point of pride, for my Gigi, my mother and myself. This loss was my daughter’s first funeral, and while I know she learned a lot, I think I learned more.
My daughter and I had discussed death in an abstract sense. She had heard, both from her Presbyterian pre-school and her family, that when you die, you go up to Heaven with God. But up until this point, I had never thought she was ready to attend a funeral. I assumed the open casket and crowds of people would be too much for a child struggling to understand why someone she loved had to go away.
However, given my daughter’s close relationship with her great-grandmother, I felt like it would be unfair to deny her the chance to say goodbye. We knew my grandmother was sick, but we thought she had months. Then my dad called me during the day and told me to come immediately. There was time for the adults, but no opportunity to get the kids from school and let them say goodbye. The funeral would be my daughter’s only chance.
From the very beginning, Brenna seemed to approach the situation with a matter-of-fact point of view. When I tried to sit her down to give her the news, she already knew what I was going to tell her. I sat on the couch and said, “Hunnie, can you come sit with me? Momma needs to talk to you about something.” She curled up in my lap and before I could speak she said, “Gigi’s dead.” I was shocked. I sputtered and asked how she knew. “I just know, Mom,” she told me.
I tried to prepare her for the funeral and what she would see. I let her know that her great-grandmother’s body would be laying there for us to say goodbye, but that she wouldn’t be able to talk to us or respond. She would be listening from Heaven. “It’s like she’s sleeping,” my daughter surmised. I had planned on telling her that next.
Once the day came, I brought my daughter in early before any other guests arrived. I wanted her to have a second to herself, a second to do whatever she needed to do. I was prepared for crying, for confusion, for fear. I braced myself and my mom for my little girl’s reaction. My daughter simply walked up, looking at the casket. She asked a couple basic questions like where her legs were, since half of the casket was closed. Then she started examining the flowers that were stretched along the front of the church, asking if she could pick a bouquet to take home.
I have to admit, in those moments, I was a little disappointed. I didn’t want my daughter to be sad, but I felt like she didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I was upset and crying and I wanted her to get the chance to feel like bad emotions. My instinct was to try to talk to her, to explain to her why this was serious. I was frustrated when she started giggling with her cousin and playing hide-and-seek in the pews before anyone else arrived. (Never mind that I have played hide-and-seek in those pews countless times in my life.)
Throughout the funeral, my daughter stayed relatively cheerful. When I started crying, she tutted and patted my arm. When the preacher made amusing comments about my grandmother’s singing or stubbornness, Brenna laughed the hardest. She seemed completely okay with the situation, comfortable in her surroundings, and accepting of her great-grandmother’s passing. It was not what I had prepared for at all. And honestly, she was more composed than I was.
Finally, at the end of the funeral, we were given our final chance to say goodbye. The rest of the guests filed out of the church. The immediate family was left, standing in a semi-circle at the front of the casket. My daughter walked up, she touched her grandmother’s face and hands. She whispered softly, so none of us could hear what she was telling her. It was a secret between those two, just as my grandmother would’ve wanted it to be. She always liked secrets. Then, my little girl turned around, buried her face in my lap and broke into sobs. Every person in that Church lost it, weeping and holding each other and having our last moment with our family’s matriarch.
Honestly, I’m not sure if my daughter was responding to her own feelings, or doing what she thought she should, based on watching everyone around her. After I held her and got her calmed down, a sense of guilt seemed to wash over me. I felt bad for wanting her to feel like I did, to grieve as I was. We each process loss in our own way, even children.
Parents want their children to handle funerals and loss in a way that they see as appropriate. Normally, that means we just want them to respond like we do. But we do a disservice to our children when we say that they need to be sad. My daughter was sad in the end, but it would’ve been fine if she never had that moment of sobbing. It would’ve been fine if that moment came days later, while we were at home and something reminded her of Gigi. And it’ll be fine if all of those emotions come flooding back to us in the next months or years.
Taking a child to a funeral is extremely difficult. It adds just a bit more stress to an already stressful situation. But the biggest mistake a parent can make, a mistake that I fought with this week, is trying to direct your child in how they grieve. We cannot make them process death in the same way that we do, and we shouldn’t try.