From the Mommy Files…

Will He Be An Angel?

Posted on: June 21, 2010

It was a subject I hoped to not have to cover for a while – the death of a family member.

My mother-in-law passed away a year before we got married, so unfortunately, the girls never got to know her. I tell my daughters that their Yia Yia (Grandma) Mary lives in Heaven with God, and that she watches over us. When we say our prayers at night, BooBoo ends her prayers with, “..and please watch over Yia Yia Mary in Heaven.” We show her pictures of her grandmother and talk about her. She knows Yia Yia Mary is Daddy’s mommy, and that’s about all her 3 year-old brain can handle.

My uncle had been ill for some time, and passed away last week. BooBoo knew that Uncle was sick, and I’d tell her we had to call Auntie to see how Uncle was doing. She began to ask how he was, if he was still sick. Sometimes she’d prompt me to call and see how he was. She liked to say hi on the phone.

A few weeks ago, Uncle went into the hospital again. Every day I called my cousin to check on him, and then I’d call other family members to provide an update. It became part of our routine. Boo would ask if it was time to call Uncle and then we had to call Yia Yia (my mother) to tell her how he was.

We went to see him about 2 weeks ago, and the girls drew pictures for him. Boo was very excited to present her picture to Uncle. “I’m giving it to you so you can get better fast,” she said. Oh, a child’s optimism!

Last week, my uncle decided to suspend treatments. We all flocked to the hospital for what would be a last goodbye. I left the girls in the waiting room with my dad. The first thing Uncle asked was, “how are the girls?” He drifted in and out of sleep, told a few jokes – he’s known for his wit – which seemed to put us all at ease. Though his body was failing, his personality was alive and well.

When it was time to leave, BooBoo wanted to give my aunt some pictures she’d drawn. Kids weren’t allowed in his room, but she said to bring them in. She picked up Boo and brought her close to Uncle. He was really happy to see the girls – you could see his face light up. “Get better,” Boo said, as we left. It was the last time we’d see him. He died two days later.

For the first few days, I tried really hard to not cry around the girls. I didn’t tell them what happened. Boo continued to ask, “is Uncle still in the hospital?” and “When is Uncle going to get better?”

As we approached the day of the wake, I decided I had to tell her something, as she and her sister would stay with a babysitter and we’d be gone several hours to attend the wake. She’d ask where we were going.

When we say our prayers at night, we start with the Lord’s Prayer, then mention people we want God to watch over. We usually end the prayer with special prayers for people that are sick, and we’d always name Uncle. We hadn’t mentioned Uncle in the last 2 nights.

“Mommy, what about Uncle?” she asked, as we finished our prayers. It was time for the talk.

I knew I had to keep this in the simplest of terms.

“Uncle has gone to Heaven to live with God, Sweetie, just like Yia Yia Mary.” She looked pensive, like she was trying to process the information. “But he is sick, Mommy,” she replied. “When you go to live in Heaven, you aren’t sick anymore,” I continued. “Will he be an angel?” She remembered something I told her a long time ago about going to Heaven. “Yes, Honey. He will now be an angel,” she cut me off. “And watch over us!” she said. Exactly. She didn’t ask any more questions, so I left it at that.

So I started asking God to watch over people, like we do when we say our prayers. She added, “…and please watch over Uncle in Heaven, and make him a happy angel.” It was so sweet; I could barely hold back the tears.

I didn’t encounter death until I was 12, when my 13 year-old cousin died. She had a blood disease and was ill her entire life. A 12 year-old’s questions are a lot different than a 3 year-old’s; I asked my mom if I would die when I turned 13. I’ll never forget the look on her face. All she could say was “No!” and walk away. She was truly stunned.

BabyCenter featured a really good article on speaking to preschoolers about death. They suggest: keep explanations simple, don’t dodge their questions, and expect the subject to come up repeatedly – be consistent in your responses. They also suggest not to use the words “at peace” or “is sleeping,” to describe a death. In the Orthodox religion, we say that people “fell asleep in the Lord.” I don’t think she can grasp that concept yet. They say you should memorialize the deceased, express your emotions and prepare for different reactions from them. They also have some tips on dealing with their reactions to seeing everyone so sad.

Uncle is now an angel, indeed. We’ll miss him, but I’m thankful he won’t suffer any longer.

May his memory be eternal.

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