Parents as pastors

My Gran died the other day

Her death didn’t come as a surprise – she was 95, and we had noticed her getting more and more frail. As it happened, I was away walking in Freycinet National Park as she started to deteriorate, so I emerged from the park to the news that she had died. I was spared the hour by hour news of her bad reaction to the morphine. I did not hear the reports from family about how she had stopped eating and drinking. I did not have to make the difficult decision of whether to fly up to Sydney to see her one last time before she died.

My Gran lived in NSW – in her own home in Sydney until the age of 94, and then lately in an aged care facility on the Central Coast. She was stubbornly independent, in that she never wanted to be a trouble to anyone.

And she was completely dependable – my brothers, my sister and I always knew we could rely on her for a bed when we were in Sydney, for phones calls on special occasions, for visits when we were passing through. She never missed any of her great-grandkids’ birthdays.

I knew my Gran mostly through her retirement years. She was a woman who travelled, and was ready with some marvellous stories and photos of her travels. But what sticks more in my mind was her enormous willingness to serve – she was involved in management of her local RSL and bowls clubs for more years than I can remember.

My own kids got to know their Great-Gran a little, but being so far away from her for almost all of their lives, they really didn’t know her well. We couldn’t get them up to the funeral. I was somewhat surprised at their reactions – my eldest was quite sad and quite put out that she couldn’t come along. I suppose that she knew Gran best of the three children, which goes some way to explaining things.

But then I remembered that she was the one most affected when her other great-grandmother died. I guess that she is more demonstrative with her grief, and finds greater comfort in ritual and in grieving alongside the wider family. (She is our little extravert!) My other two children seemed to lose interest once they knew that they weren’t coming with us, and once they were satisfied with the arrangements for their care while Sally and I were away.

Since all this, I’ve done a little reading on children and grief, and a few things have caught my attention.

  • The folk at Beyond Blue note, in the context of grief and bereavement, that children learn from adult behaviour and seek permission from adults. My own children, on our return from NSW, were asking me, ‘Do you feel sad?’ (yes) and ‘Did you cry?’ (no). I wondered at their interest, but it makes sense – they were trying to work out what the rules are for this sort of thing, trying to work out how they should feel and react. In hindsight, I think I would make more of an effort to show them how my Gran’s death affects me.
  • Many different sites make mention of different grief reactions in children, ranging from the ‘classic’ reactions of teariness and clinginess to more off the wall behaviours like anger, acting out, and regressive behaviour. Some children will internalise their grief, and just carry on behaviourally as if nothing had happened. It was a helpful reminder to me not to assume that my younger two children are unaffected because they haven’t articulated their feelings.
  • All the different commentators talk about how important it is to talk openly, simply and concretely about bereavement and loss. Using words like ‘died’ or ‘death’ is preferable to euphemisms like ‘passed away’, ‘eternal sleep’ or ‘left us’.
  • A very helpful South Australian website  describes how different ages deal with and understand grief and loss, ranging from pre-schoolers to teenagers. One observation that this site makes is that children in the upper primary age range will start to ask questions about life after death. For my family and my Gran, this is a source of great hope. I wonder how I would go speaking with my kids about this in the context of the death of someone who is not a Christian?
  • All the websites talk about the vast range of changes that can bring grief to children – changes including death of friends, family or pets, family break up, moving house or changing schools, illness (self or family member), loss of a friendship. It’s helpful to remember that a child’s grief may underlie what appears, on the surface, to be poor or inexplicable behaviour.

The last thought, and it’s a little bit comforting, is that I felt (and still feel) really ill-equipped to deal with this issue with my kids. We’re pretty well shielded from death and loss in our society, and we’re used to leaving such complexities to the experts when they arise. While there is a place for expert intervention where it is needed, it seems to me that most kids don’t need that sort of intervention – they need a parent who is present, authentic and open with them. And I think I just might even be able to manage that.

 Some useful resources

Betterhealth Victoria grief-and-children 
Beyond Blue children-and-grief  
Kidsmatter should-i-be-concerned/children-and-grief

James Oakley


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