It’s been pretty fascinating to see how people respond to someone who is grieving. Some approach you so cautiously that you wonder if they think that grief somehow managed to render you insane. Some people use their faith as a catalyst for conversation and, when it is done well, it can be incredibly comforting. After all, who wouldn’t want to believe that the people we’ve lost are safe, surrounded by love, and waiting patiently for us on another plane? When it is not done well, it can be absolutely infuriating. (Take, for example, the woman who suggested I not cry at my father’s wake; but be glad that God was merciful. I wanted desperately to tell her that I failed to see the mercy in a 57-year-old man dying from respiratory failure because he no longer has the strength to cough; but I thought better of it. I knew she was only trying to be nice.) Some people skirt the issue and say nothing. Others ask how you’re doing and just let you talk.
As luck would have it, I happen to live with someone who asks how I’m doing and just lets me talk. Anyone who knows him would agree that my husband, Darren, is hands-down the world’s greatest listener. He doesn’t always know how to respond to what’s being said and he doesn’t assume to have the answers to everything, and I love that about him. He just makes it clear that he cares, he’s listening, and he’ll gladly keep listening for as long as it’s needed. And the best part is that he shies away from nothing. Losing my dad has made me stop and think about things that I would have liked to ignore for a very long time. When these thoughts creep into my head, I know that Darren can handle hearing them and will take them to heart. I think the following serves as a good example:
Me: Listen… If anything happens to me, you should know that I want you to be happy, and I’m completely fine with you meeting and dating someone. You can even marry her.
Darren: Nothing is going to happen to you, Sweetie.
Me: Probably not, but we’re not immune to tragedy. I want you to do whatever you need to do to be happy if the worst happens. Just promise me this… Promise you won’t ever let the kids call her Mommy. They can call her anything they want; but they can never call her Mommy. Think of some other clever name for her.
Darren: Exactly how clever are we talking?
Me: I refuse to name her.
Darren: I’m joking!
Erin, I would never let them call her Mommy, and there will never be a “her.” This isn’t something you need to worry about.
Me: I know. It just terrifies me to think that if something happened, they would hardly remember me. Please don’t ever let them forget me. Show them pictures, talk about everything we did together, tell them five times every day that I loved them more than anything. That’s the last thing I’ll ask, and then I’ll stop talking about this. Please promise you’ll do everything you can to help them remember me.
Darren: Of course I will.
Me: And promise me you’ll always tell Madeline the Story of Grampa.
Darren: (Quietly) Aw, sweetie... I promise.
The Story of Grampa is a string of sweet little notes about my dad that I whisper to Madeline as she falls asleep at night. She was only 11 months old when he died, and it crushes me to think that she won’t have vivid or even vague memories of him, especially since she loved him so much. Every time we stopped by for a visit, she’d waste no time darting to his room on all fours, letting out funny little shrieks and squeals along the way. When she finally reached his room, she would stop in the doorway, lift a tiny hand off the floor, point to him in his wheelchair, and babble up a storm. Sometimes, she’d get so excited that the volume of her little voice would rise and she would look like the world’s tiniest drill sergeant, pointing and barking orders at my defenseless dad. He would stare wide-eyed at her and laugh, and his response was the same every time. “Are you yelling at me again, Maddie? Why do you always yell at me?”
I will never forget the bitter sting of watching as she made her way to my dad’s room after he died, stopped at his doorway, and pointed to the spot where he used to sit. Grampa wasn’t there, the space where he parked his wheelchair was empty, and the soft scent of his shampoo hung in the air. Madeline’s buddy was gone, and watching her stare into the ether, looking for him, was excruciating.
And that’s why the Story of Grampa is so vital. Madeline needs to hear it so that she always knows that once, there was a man, he sat in a special chair in a special room, his name was Grampa, and she loved him. If, God forbid, I can no longer tell her the story myself, I have to know that somebody else will.
The Story of Grampa varies and is really never the same twice; but in a nutshell, it goes a little something like this:
Do you remember Grampa, Madeline? Grampa had dark hair and the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen. They were clear and soft, and had little flecks of gold in them. Grampa’s top lip curled when he smiled, just like yours! When you were a baby, you would stop crying the second you were propped on his lap, and you loved to talk with him and play with the wheels on his wheelchair.
Grampa was strong and healthy, and he loved to ride his bike to the inlet with Grammie and go for walks on the boardwalk with her. Grampa could shoot pool like nobody’s business, and he never, ever lost a game. (Except for the night when Daddy asked him if he could marry me. Grampa was so happy, he let Daddy win!) Grampa loved to take care of the yard and the pool, and he liked to listen to the Yankee games on the radio while he worked outside. He loved sweets, just like Mommy! Chocolate chip cookies were his favorite, and he gobbled up M&Ms by the handful.
Grampa was so smart, and he traveled all over the world to help the Nestle plants work better. He was never boastful; he was quiet and modest. He was liked and respected by everyone who met him. He worked hard. He was brave. He loved you and Ellie so much, and he told you so whenever he said goodbye.
Grampa found out that he was sick, and when the doctors couldn’t make him better, God brought him to heaven and made him better there. He doesn’t need a wheelchair anymore; he can walk, and use his hands and his arms again. He claps for you when you learn something new, he sends you kisses when you sleep, he is proud of you every day, and he looks after you to make sure you are safe and happy.
No matter how it begins or how it progresses, the Story of Grampa always ends with me pleading with my dozing baby, “Don’t forget him, ok, Madeline? Please, please try your hardest to remember him.” I realize that’s a very tall order for such a young person; but it’s worth a shot, right? And who knows… maybe one day she’ll be graced with a flashbulb memory of him; she will recognize the dark hair, soft brown eyes, and curled upper lip; and, thanks to the Story of Grampa, whether told by me or by Darren, it will occur to her… “I remember him. He sat in a special chair in a special room. I loved him and he loved me.” And she will miss him; but she will feel lucky and proud to have had him in her life. Just like her mom.