It was time. Our family and friends had been praying for our kids and us for the last three days. My husband and I decided we’d tell the children the news in the living room, during family movie night. I yanked the tags off of the new stuffed animals and heated popcorn kernels until they burst. The kids staked out their nooks on the sofa with their favorite blankets. I turned the popcorn over and over, working to evenly coat it with melted butter.
We paused the movie. As I put the new teddy bears into their hands, I knelt down next to my daughter and son, and we told them about Grandpa.
We rotated through crying, hugging, reassuring them that we were safe, answering questions, and acknowledging how awful it all was. After several rounds of this, we’d take a break to catch our breath and watch a few minutes of the cartoon. Then we’d repeat the process.
At one point, my first-grade son stopped and searched our faces with his swollen eyes and said, “OK, if this is the worst day of your entire life, raise your hand.” My hand mirrored his: up it went, fingers fully extended, straining to reach higher than our bodies would allow.
The day after I’d been notified of the crash that my (step)dad of 22 years didn’t survive, my gut ached as I left Mom’s house. But more family had arrived, and it was time for me to go be with my children and husband.
I turned the brushed nickel doorknob and nudged my front door open. My husband and I exchanged knowing looks. The kids jolted up from the oatmeal-colored carpet. Watching their animated faces chatter on as usual was like watching characters in a play. It felt one part familiar, two parts surreal. Thankfully, they were still members of the good, green world where their grandpa lived fifteen minutes down the road, and there was no reason to ask about him.
In those first days I had no appetite. Gravity had doubled. Walking was a chore. Getting up out of the recliner took more willpower than pedaling the elliptical machine had the week before. My kids asked me to make the typical things like grilled cheese sandwiches and strawberry smoothies. Too hard. I needed meal preparation to involve only opening something and sticking a spoon in it. “How about yogurt, cereal and applesauce?”
I loved being around my children, but I spent all my energy holding myself back from weeping. Once they’d leave the kitchen (where I read emailed condolences), I could let go. I’d buckle over onto the counter and let my face release a free-flow of silent tears. If they came back in suddenly, I’d keep my back turned and load or unload the dishes—again.
Before we would let the kids know that their grandpa had passed away (“Is that what we should call it?” “I don’t know. I’ve heard you should just say ‘died’ so they aren’t confused”) we had to settle ourselves. At this point, it hadn’t even been 24 hours since I’d been notified. I knew I didn’t have the emotional energy to get out the surreal sentence: “Grandpa died last night.”
We took a few days to decide how we’d break the news to our son and daughter. We talked to friends and consulted books on grief and death. The kids had never known anyone who had died, let alone someone so close to them.
My son and dad would make little wooden creations together. They once tried to make a dragon, but according to my son, “It turned out kinda looking like a duck. We both laughed at it.” We never did find that dragon.
Just a week or two prior, he had asked my daughter to assist him with an oil change. She eagerly climbed the footstool in the driveway and helped him pour a five-quart jug of oil into a funnel. “Oops, not quite that much. That’s OK, we’ll get it.” My mom snapped a picture of her granddaughter’s first oil change with Grandpa: the two of them grinning away under an overcast sky.
Dad lived to help others in any practical or relational way he could. “It’d be my pleasure to help with anything. Call anytime” was how he ended most visits to my house.
And I wasn’t the only one. We had to use a bigger building than my parents’ church for his memorial service. When one of the pastors asked the crowd who Dad had personally come and helped, over two-thirds of the group raised their hands. I imagine the other folks just hadn’t mentioned to him that they had a broken water heater, fan belt, or heart.
The weeks that followed the loss were exhausting. Thankfully, our loved ones brought us loads of snacks and offered to help watch the children so we could have some breaks.
But as the days went on, some of the most healing relief came from my kids. Like when my daughter noticed I was wearing my silver locket. She slapped down her marker, ran up to hug me and asked, “Mom, can I see your eyes?” And when we gave my son a little brass whistle that used to be Dad’s. His response was, “Thank you. But I don’t want his stuff. I just want him.”
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