My grandmother’s unveiling was this past Sunday, on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year. Except the day wasn’t especially sad for me. My grandmother passed away just months before her 96th birthday and she lived a very long and full life. She was well loved. And while I wish my grandmother could have met my daughters, born just two days before her death, I think we’re pretty lucky to she got to meet–and got to know–the six other great-grandchildren who came before my own.
Kids factored into Sunday’s events in a big way. There were 10 children present at the graveside. At least as many stones, painted by the children with messages to my grandmother, their great-grandmother, were placed on her headstone. When the rabbi began to speak about my grandma Rose, about her resilience and about how much she loved her family, a few of those kids began to cry.
While many families keep children apart from ritual practices of death and mourning, my family’s tradition has always been to include kids–at the nursing home, at the hospital, at the graveside. Ten years ago, when my grandmother suffered a stroke that left her unable to communicate and far less mobile than she had been, my father and aunt found her a comfortable place to live in an assisted living facility where she received physical therapy and excellent care. My father visited her weekly and often, he took one of my nephews along with him. They brought snacks and pictures they’d painted. They hugged her and pushed her walker down the long hallways. They let her reach out and touch their faces–her vision had wildly deteriorated and she could only see shadows–but they never flinched, never pulled away. Sometimes, they peered into other residents’ rooms and saw older men and women in bed, or being aided by a nurse.
Such stuff isn’t easy for kids; it’s certainly not easy for adults, either. My nephews cried more than once after visits to my grandmother at the nursing home. There were lots of questions–why can’t she talk? Can she see me? Does she know me?–and often, lots of comforting was needed. No doubt, there are arguments to be made for letting kids live blissfully unaware of illness and dying, and waiting until they’re older to share the really uncomfortable parts of life. Some might even argue that it’s selfish or unfair of adults to expect children to be able to handle the heavy stuff that we, ourselves, can’t even really handle well.
But this isn’t how I was raised. As kids, my sisters and I never left the sanctuary during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur, a memorial that often brought the adults around us to tears. Instead, we stood next to our parents as they recited the Kaddish and then we learned it ourselves and stood with them and recited it, too. And we spent days in the hospital with my grandfather when he quickly succumbed to illness over 20 years before my grandmother battled hers. And for many years we spent every Sunday with another grandmother in a different nursing home as dementia took her memories of us but left her with an intense love of music. We were teenagers by then, and we sat around singing and keeping her company. Nursing homes were not taboo. Hospitals were not off-limits. Illness and memory loss and mood swings and sadness and medicine bottles and doctors and hard decisions–we weren’t really shielded from any of it.
Sunday was the first visit my daughters took to the cemetery and I’m not going to pretend they understood what was happening. They toddled around on the grass, picked up pebbles and tried to eat them, fell down and got dirty. They yelled when I took their stones away, they wrestled free when we tried to hold them close.
But I loved that they were there with us. I liked how their brightly colored dresses contrasted against the gray day (how is it that it so often rains when one visits the cemetery?). I loved how the sounds of their babbling rang out across the open space. I loved that from this very young age and before they even know it, we were making this place, this event, this stuff of life, open and accessible to them. Not taboo, not forbidden, but rather, something we experience as a family.
And as I watched my nephews and my cousins’ children–six of them old enough to stand on their own, old enough to listen closely and really think about Rose, old enough to remember her and cry because they felt sad about losing her–I felt grateful that in her death, as well as in her life, she was being honored by her youngest and most precious offspring. I also realized something: by letting the kids be a part of her death, we’d given them an appreciation of her life. And by letting the kids be a part of the Jewish ritual ceremonies that followed her death, we’d found a way to console them, and ourselves.
Mourning the loss of my grandmother surrounded by children, by the next generation, by the drooling, giggling, loud and messy future, reaffirmed how alive I felt, and how despite our sadness, we had much to be happy about.