By Sheila Squillante Something happened tonight that I was totally unprepared for.
Before I describe it, I’ll back up and say that lately, my daughter, Josephine, has been asking a lot of questions about death. In particular, she wants to know, “Did my grandpa die?” My answer is always the truth: Yes, sweetie. He died. Each time the question comes, her inquiry deepens so that we have gone through, “He was your dad? Your dad died?” “How did he die?” “Why did he die?” “Where is my grandpa now?” and, “Can he come back?”
These questions obliterate me, but I have been able to take a deep breath each time and tell her the age-appropriate truth with maybe a little quaver to my voice, maybe a quick tear, but mostly with composure. I did the same thing for my son when he began to ask these questions.
And I’ve been telling the kids about their grandfather since they were first interested in listening to stories. Josephine has been asking for “Grandpa Stories” before bed for at least a year. She has them memorized and asks for them by name: “The Snapping Turtle,” “The Red Rooster in Brewster,” The Glue Cookies.” Tonight, though, as we were finishing up a book we got from the library, turning off the light and climbing into her bed for our nightly snuggle, she burst into racking, whole-little-body-shaking sobs out of nowhere. I thought, at first, that she had physically hurt herself. I was completely thrown and I asked her what was wrong. She could barely form her mouth around the words,
“I miss my grandpa. I want him to come back.”
I gathered her up into my arms and held her while she cried, stroking her hair and telling her it was okay to feel sad, that I feel sad sometimes, too. That it’s okay to miss him. But that when I’m sad, I think about The Glue Cookies or The Red Rooster and it helps me feel better, closer to him. I promised her I would tell her Grandpa stories whenever she wanted me to to help her feel better, too. I told her all this while she cried and cried and I buried my face in her hair and cried too. Quietly. Mostly swallowing my grief for fear of indulging it and letting it overwhelm us both.
It’s not that I didn’t expect her to ask hard questions about death or that she would maybe someday feel a void where my father should have been in her life.
But I did not expect it to happen *now*. She is three years old.
I have become so used to my son’s rather cerebral, analytical relationship to my father’s death (the only emotion I’ve seen him express has been around the extrapolation of death-in-general to Death of Parent. Me.), that I forgot about the child whose uncanny empathy has been a primary part of her personality since she was a year old. This should not have surprised me. This is who she is.
As I helped her settle, I realized that this was the first time in more than eighteen years that I’ve had to push my own grief aside to minister to someone else’s. That it was my own daughter’s felt terrifying–I don’t want her to hurt like this–but also, in a sense, wonderfully healing.
I have always said that part of the reason I write about my father is to continue him, to enliven him for my children. Maybe I’ve been able to do that a little, and it feels good; it makes me happy.
But somehow it never occurred to me that, along with my memories, my stories, my kids would also inherit my living, persistent, still vibrant grief.
Header Image: New York Public Library. Photo by Centennial Photographic Co. of sculpture "Grief".