Two years ago, I wrote my son a letter about his grandmother who died several years before he was born. In this letter, I grappled with the question of whether he – or any child – could come to know and love someone they have never met. I so hoped my mother would continue to be a part of his life.
My son was just a baby when I wrote that letter. Now he’s an almost 4-year-old kid with a new baby brother. The first time he looked at a photo of my mom and asked, “Who’s that?” my chest knotted up. It was the moment I’d been waiting for; I stumbled on my words. “Liz,” he said, just like that. No “Nana” or “Grandma” beforehand. It’s endearing and it makes sense. He comprehends that she’s my mom, but doesn’t yet grasp what she would’ve been to him, or what they would have meant to each other, but I can imagine it well.
My son knows that his grandmother died, not “passed away” or “is resting in peace.” In talking with him, I chose the word “died” on purpose, because I know the importance keeping things simple and avoiding euphemisms from the grief counseling work I’ve done. In fact, maybe I would have handled my mom’s death better at age 18 if death hadn’t seemed like a taboo thing while I was growing up.
So my son knows that my mother, his grandmother, died before they had the chance to meet. We only talk about her death when he brings it up or on certain days of the year. But when we do, I see the wheels in his mind turning as he tries to wrap his head around the complicated concept of loss. It’s a hard enough reality for adults to understand.
A few weeks ago marked what would have been my mom’s 58th birthday. I told my son as much, and he asked with excitement if we could go to her birthday party. After all, he’s really into birthday parties. I explained that there wouldn’t be a party, but then wondered why there couldn’t be. Why couldn’t her birthday still be a day to celebrate the amazing person she was? I told my son that we could throw our own little party in her honor. We could bake a cake and have as much fun as possible. She would have liked that. She would have loved him.
My mother has been gone for a decade now and grief catches still me off guard at times. Driving to my son’s preschool holiday concert last year, I felt my chest sink without warning as my eyes welled up with tears. Soon, I’d be watching my boy up on stage in his red collared shirt, timidly looking into the audience to find his dad and me, squeaking out the words to “Jingle Bells.” Bursting with pride and excitement, it suddenly hit me: Oh my god, my mom is missing this. She’s missing all of this … all of him.
Special moments and milestones have a way of highlighting her absence, but then again, so do ordinary things, like walking in the park with sunlight filtering through the tall pine trees, as one of my sons rides his tricycle and the other is pushed in the stroller. Or waking up to my sons’ sleepy smiles and bed heads, or the sound of my kids’ belly laughs that sound like the best song in the whole world. I’ll suddenly think, Oh, how I wish we could share this with her.
But I want my children to know that my missing their grandmother doesn’t make me any less present for them. It doesn’t make our time together bittersweet. Rather, it makes every experience more precious, because I know not to take a single bit of it for granted.
Writer Khalil Gibran said, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain …”
When my kids see me tear up on our way to a holiday concert, I want them to know that I’m truly grateful for that emotion. It’s like a gust of wind waking me up, making me feel more alive, and more like myself. I am filled with a sense of coming home, filled to the brim with love. Because that’s what my mom is to me: happiness, security, home, and love. And I’ve never I felt more connected to her than when I’m creating memories with my children.
“I miss Liz,” I admitted to my oldest as we baked her birthday cake.
“I miss her, too,” he said without hesitation. “But you’re not sad anymore,” he continued, “because you have a family now.”
Somehow, without my ever saying it, he knew that our family healed my broken heart. And without ever having met my mom, he’s already learning from her life. What a beautiful gift.