My three youngest children and I snuggle in bed to look at the iPad together. My husband is on an airplane flying from Northern Virginia to his brother’s home in California. He is a teacher and never travels for work, so his four-nights away is a big deal in our home. I open up maps of the United States, so we can see how far he is going. My kids ooh and ahh at the map and the idea that it takes five hours by airplane or nearly 39 hours of driving straight to get there.
Then I pull up the world map, so they can see how small the United States is in comparison to the entire world. I know we’ve looked at maps before, but from their excitement it feels like the first time. I point to London, where their Uncle lives.
“Wow, that’s so far,” my 8-year-old son AD says.
Then my almost six-year-old daughter, B, asks, “So, where is Pop-Pop on here?”
My heart freezes and I inhale deeply. It has been four months and 14 days since we said goodbye to their Pop-Pop, my Daddy.
“Pop-Pop is in heaven,” I say with as much confidence as I can muster. I know what she is going to ask next and yet I’m unprepared. I thought we covered all of this. I read them all the age appropriate books. I cried with them and gave them photos to remember. I made them part of the memorial services. I answered all their questions and did everything I was supposed to do. I thought she understood. But, really, how can a 6-year-old understand something I can’t completely understand.
“I mean, where is heaven on the map?” she asks.
Interestingly, AD who always has an answer doesn’t say a word. He also wants to know. They both want to know exactly where their Pop-Pop is right now.
“Well, it doesn’t work that way sweetie. Heaven isn’t a place you can see or find on a map,” I say. “No one that is alive really knows what it’s like. But, many people believe it is a beautiful place where your spirit lives on and you get to be with your loved ones again.”
They both nod and are silent. They are absorbing everything I said. Then my three-year-old jumps on the iPad and screams that she wants to watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. I’ve never been so grateful for the troublesome threes before.
The conversation is dropped and I give them 10 more minutes of play before bedtime. They run into their rooms and I stare at the map. I wish I could find him on this damn device. Imagine if they made an app for that? For seeing our loved ones one more time. For explaining to our children what it really means to say goodbye. To learn how to handle the void. To tell me if I’m saying the right things.
My children are young and have many questions I can’t answer. Their grief and loss sometimes feels like a second knife in my heart that cuts deeply when I least expect. Sometimes, I forget that they lost someone they love too.
Parenting while grieving yourself is extremely difficult. It’s so much easier for me to pretend that they don’t think about it and have moved on. Maybe this is why I haven’t spoken about Pop-Pop with them recently. Maybe this is why it was a shock that instead of asking where Disney World is on the map, they asked where they can find heaven. I handled their question the best way I could, but truthfully, what I wanted to say was that I would give anything to find heaven on the map. To see for myself, if only for a moment, that all my loved ones are there… waiting and peaceful. To really know.
If I was a better writer, perhaps I could come up with “Five Ways to Comfort Your Children After Losing a Grandparent,” or maybe a “Guide to Parent Your Kids After Losing Your Parent.”
But, I’m at a loss. I don’t have the answers and I don’t really believe anyone does. We just do the best we can – like all of our parenting experiences.
For now, I will make a better effort to acknowledge my children’s feelings and keep the memory of their Pop-Pop alive. I will have faith and choose to believe that while I may not be able to find heaven on the map, we will one day find heaven.
I will do this for them and for myself.