family · growing up · Jewish · slice of life

My Grandma is gone.

Yahrzeit candles are lit in memory of every year at sundown on the eve of the anniversary of the death. They're also lit on sundown before the start of of Yom Kippur, as well as the last day of the holidays of Passover,  Shavuot, and Sukkot.
Yahrzeit candles are lit in memory of every year at sundown on the eve of the anniversary of the death. They’re also lit on sundown before the start of of Yom Kippur, as well as the last day of the holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.

Isabelle noticed an unlit Yahrzeit candle on the island in our kitchen before she went upstairs last night. (My mom is at our house through tomorrow.  Today marks the lunar calendar anniversary of my grandmother’s passing.  My mom is staying with us through tomorrow so she brought the candle to our house to light it.)

“What’s dat for?” Isabelle asked.

I said something like it’s to help us remember my grandmother who is gone.

“Who’s your grandma?” she asked.

I reached for a photograph of my grandparents that I keep atop my desk.  I pointed to my grandmother and said, “That was my Grandma.  That’s Bubbe’s mommy. You’re named after her.”

“Who’s dat?” she pointed at the little girl in the center of the photo.

“That was me. I was nine years-old in that photo.”

She was perplexed by the fact that I was ever young.  So our conversation turned to how I could have ever been a girl.


With my grandparents at my uncle's wedding in 1986. (A Waterlogue version of the frame on my desk.)
With my grandparents at my uncle’s wedding in 1986. (A Waterlogue version of the frame on my desk.)

This afternoon, my mother pulled me aside once Isabelle returned from school.

“What do you want me to say if she asks about the candle?”

“Has she asked about it yet?”

“Yes, she did this morning when we were eating breakfast.”

“What did you say?”

My mom told me her approximated answer and then followed up with, “What do you want me to say to her?”

I pondered. “A children’s author named Patricia Polacco talks about death as letting go of the grass. You could say Grandma let go of the grass.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” my mom scoffed.

In hindsight, I realize this was ridiculous to say to my mom. I was teaching fifth grade in Manhattan when my grandmother passed away in March 2007.  We had done a Patricia Polacco Author Study and my students knew that letting go of the grass equated death.  Therefore, we talked about my grandmother’s death as her letting go of the grass after her passing.  (My gosh, that was such a great class of kids.  We had our own little language.) 

“Well, I guess it’d make more sense if you were familiar with Patricia Polacco’s books,” I responded.

“So, what do you want me to tell her?” my mom asked again.

I thought. “You could say something about Grandma being old.  Or you could say she was tired and went back to live with her parents in heaven.”

I looked at my mom and she looked back at me. We were both clueless whether heaven was a concept we should be introducing.

“You could tell her heaven us up there,” I said.

“Do you want me to say that?” she asked. “I want to say what you want me to say.”

“I don’t know what the answer is. All I can tell you is that I remember going to Uncle Irving’s funeral when I was four-years-old.  And look at me.  I’m not permanently damaged as a result of attending the funeral. Whatever you say will be the right thing.”

Fortunately, Isabelle went to sleep tonight without another question about the Yahrzeit candle.  It will burn out later and will be thrown away tomorrow.  Most likely, she won’t remember it was ever shining.

But I know there will be questions about where my grandmother is again.  And I don’t have an answer ready.  It is so hard to talk about death without scaring a young child.  I want to say the right thing, but I’m not sure there is a right answer.

We talk about my grandmother all of the time in front of Isabelle.  Talking about her keeps her memory alive.  I’m not planning to stop.  But one day, not long from now, I know the question about where she is will surface again.  And when that happens, I hope I have some kind of answer ready for Isabelle.

Right now, I have nothing.


10 thoughts on “My Grandma is gone.

  1. AMEN!!! It’s difficult but SO necessary. In my opinion it would be safe to say that she is up there but will always live in our hearts and help us through difficult times. It’s those memories that helps us through difficult times. CYBER HUG!!!!!

  2. I’ve always been pretty honest with my girls about it. My grandmother died in 2005 so Cecily, the youngest, was three. I think we explain it by saying when people get old and have too much wrong to be healthy in the world they die, and we keep them alive and with us by remembering all of what we loved about them. We still talk about her a lot–just did tonight at dinner. 🙂

  3. It is so hard to do. After I lost my grandma, my Evan would tell me he was going to heaven to see her. He was obsessed with death and “old”. I just had to let him talk and work through it. She is lucky to have you there to help her through it. Hugs!

  4. Your relationship is as important with your daughter as it is with your mother and your grandmother. So, there is not a right way to explain it except with your feelings. Your daughter knows you, so she will accept the way you speak about death. As she grows, she will come to understand that her life is all about the family that you hold close.

  5. There is so much emotion tied into talking about death. From a spiritual standpoint-last fall after my Grandmother died we talked about how heaven is where God lets people rest and celebrate after they have been here for a long time. (We used here and there…) It was hard and I felt bumbling because I’m quite sure I don’t understand it! I love the analogy of “letting go of the grass.” It makes me want to reread Patricia Polacco’s books this morning. Also, I think that City Dog; Country Frog by Mo Willems is a gentle book that introduces such a topic. I always enjoy stopping here. So much reflection.

  6. Death is a difficult thing to talk about, yet it is inevitable. I think taking cues from children tells us how much or how little to say. Wishing you luck when the inevitable happens,

  7. Best book ever for opening a conversation about death with children: Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. I wrote a post about how we used this book with the grandkids after my mom’s death. I’ll find it and come back later with the link.

  8. My daughter was a few years older when she needed to find out about her father who had died before she was born. For a few months I answered almost the same questions every day. I was getting tired and a little frustrated. Then one day it all stopped. She had her answers. Children are so unique in their approach to questions. Glad you had your mom there!

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