In Moment of Grief, I Could Have Been a Better Mom

A year ago I said good-bye. My grandfather was slowly losing his fight for life. My kids never got one last chance to see him.

I had taken the kids back home for a fun summer visit and he suddenly took a turn for the worse the day we arrived. He had rebounded before, but I knew it would be the last time I saw him. You just know.

Before I left to come back to North Carolina, I went to the hospital hoping he’d wake up and know I was there, say something, anything. The day before I couldn’t wake him so I tried one last time. I held his hand, pulled the blankets over his legs, nervously ran my fingers over his soft, white hair. Did he know he was dying? How do you tell someone you love good-bye, that you won’t be back? I felt so inexperienced at this, not that I wanted more. He said my name. He said he was glad I came. I didn’t get to tell him everything I wanted to say, but I don’t think he would have heard me. I don’t think I could have choked it out. I’m not good at good-byes. I hide from them like a child under a bed.

I’m not sure I made it out of the elevator or the lobby before coughs turned to sobs. I’m not sure how I found my car through the flood of tears. I don’t know how I started the car with shaking hands. But I clung to the steering wheel while grief overtook my body in a way that both surprised and relieved me. It came in a time and place when I could just let it sweep over me and I didn’t hold back.

When my grandfather died, my son wanted to go to the funeral. They had been close, some inner pull you can’t see but you know is there. I told him no. At age 8, I didn’t think he was ready. Funerals always scared me as a kid. They scare me now. I was afraid he’d get there and change his mind, seeing his great-grandfather’s body but no signs of the jolly, gentle soul that he loved. The truth is, I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t handle it. I am supposed to be the adult, but in that time I was still the child, seeing my grandfather’s body but no signs of the jolly, gentle soul that I loved.

I regret that I didn’t take my son, didn’t give him that chance to say good-bye when he knew he was ready, even if I wasn’t. I felt like the kid. I’m the one who doesn’t like funerals. I said my good-byes. And I regret that I took that chance away from my son. At the funeral, I was still the granddaughter who couldn’t comprehend seeing a lifeless body of one I loved. In my moment of grief, I couldn’t also be the parent.



Filed under About Mom

31 responses to “In Moment of Grief, I Could Have Been a Better Mom

  1. What was that saying that Oprah was so fond of … when we know better, we do better? I don’t think you did badly this time, but you’ll do better next time and your own soul is better for the reflection.

    • I live by that saying. She always quoted it from Maya Angelou. I really did fear funerals as a kid. I shouldn’t do that to my kids. My son was old enough and it would have meant something to him.

      I never went to a funeral until I was in college, my grandmother’s, and it was awful. I’d rather sit home and pretend it’s not happening.

  2. staciehebert

    HI, I just lost my beloved grandmother about 2 weeks ago (in the south grandmother’s are called “Maw Maw”) .She was my most favorite person on earth. I had a very hard time with the decision of my two boys going to the services. They were close to her, but I just don’t think they could handle it. I guess some people may think this was selfish, but I was so overcome with grief that I just couldn’t handle them being there.
    I think you were in the same mind frame as myself and you can not beat yourself up over the decision that you made. I don’t think my boys wanted to be there (they are 11 and 7). We have gone to the cemetery and they were fine with that. We talk about Maw Maw and we have pictures of her on our refrigerator. I hope you can find peace within yourself in what you felt was the right thing to do. I have…..

    • I had a MeeMaw. 😉 Knowing my son, I think he knew what he was ready for. He’s always been the type of kid who will only do something when he’s ready. I think I learned a lesson about listening to my kids.

  3. When you’re going through a grief it’s hard to think out everything. Grief can be extremely thick and heavy. I’m glad your son is self aware, that’s a great skill to have.

    I was asked if I wanted to see my grandfathers funeral, and I said no. I just couldn’t go. However, though I was a young teen I appreciated being asked instead of just made to go, or told to stay.

    • That’s true. I always had the choice. I guess it’s just hard knowing when your kids are old enough to make those choices. He’s still young. It would have been tough. It may have been the right call. But it’s hard because it was my call. It’s just funny because I never, ever wanted to go as a child!

      • People grieve in many different ways. I don’t have my baby yet, but I know I will have to make some choices on their behalf. I know more now that it’s going to be hard.

  4. Sometimes you can only do what you can in moments of great emotion. I don’t think you need to feel guilt or think poorly of yourself for your actions. I have yet to go to a funeral but I can not imagine the experience being much of a good one. I prefer to grieve alone.

  5. JWo

    I’m not good at goodbyes either.
    I wasn’t sure what to say to my stepdad when I left Mississippi a few weeks ago. I knew it might be the last time I would get to see him but it felt so wrong to acknowledge that.
    He’s still fighting but I know my last words to him weren’t anything great or memorable but I know the next time I see him it will be too late for words.
    He said he wanted to make my sister’s kids as pallbearers. The youngest, Junior, is 8 and I know from being down there that he didn’t really understand what was happening to James. So don’t beat yourself up over it because you never know how kids are going to react to and handle things like that.

  6. I’m with JWo. I wouldn’t consider that a major transgression, either. It’s always hard to tell the right thing to do. We took Dimples to her grandfather’s funeral when she was 6, and it was tough for her, I know. But a lot of family members were delighted to see her, and they really made her feel better, I think. Or not. I could have ruined her for life. But that probably wasn’t the incident that scarred her the most, all things considered.

  7. Seeing the lifeless body of a person you love is something I really feel children should be protected from. I believe what you did was a wonderful act of parenting, one which would have been helpful to me as a child. I still don’t go to wakes until I know if the coffin is open or closed. I still go, but I still hate to see the shell that’s left behind. Don’t be hard on your choice. I applaud you.

    • I never go up to the body. I stay back. But I explained it all to my son and he still wanted to go. Just the thought creeps me out. Hopefully I won’t have to deal with the decision again for a long time. Thanks for commenting.

  8. That has got to be so hard on you. I personally don’t know you or your son well enough to say what I would have done. If it was my own son, I would never take him to the funeral of a relative with an open casket.

    I saw my own father’s lifeless body when I was 21. It was the single biggest, most painful experience of my life as he meant the world to me. In a strange way, it was also very powerful. I changed that day in incredible ways. That moment truly shaped my life and my spirituality from that moment on. I was only 21. I can’t imagine how that might affect someone your child’s age. I personally think you did the right thing. The scope of seeing a lifeless body might be too immense for a child. You have no idea how they will react or how they will interpret seeing their loved one gone like that. I think just the concept of death is enough to weigh on a child’s mind. I am so very sorry for your loss.

    • Thank you. I’ve been surprised at the comments because I’ve known people who always went to funerals as kids. It’s nice to know many others would have done the same.

  9. Thank you for reminding us all that we are not perfect – not perfect daughters, mothers, or grand-daughters, and that imperfection is okay. In one of my many moments of imperfection, I was grieving over my father’s death and because of my own sadness it took me years to understand what my grandmother was experiencing when my father (her only child) died. Now I realize her grief was exponentially worse than anything I was feeling (it took me 20 years – and having grown children to get it – I’m a slow learner).
    Your heartfelt post reminds us to forgive ourselves for simply being human.

  10. Don’t beat yourself up. You did your best. Death is hard. I didn’t understand the death of my beloved Grammie when I was 13–not until I was grown up and our kids had to deal with their first “close” death, their Gee, great-grandmother. Then I got it–it’s not just about the “good bye” but the “thank you” too–thank you for being the only one of your kind in the universe ever. I wrote a book about it then: THANK YOU, GRANDPA And I’m honored it has helped families help kids deal with death. I hope you get to the “thank you” part of your journey.

    • That is an honor and great of you to help families during those times. I checked out your site on When the Kids Go to Bed’s Dino post the other day. You have written a lot of books. As a mom, I’ve found they really are a great way to get the message across. Thanks for being an author who reaches out too.

  11. What a moving post, Karen. Reading it actually helped me come to terms with my similar experience this last fall and my similar regret. I lost my grandfather, my last grandparent, and probably the grandparent I knew best. Our kids were close to him and he adored them. Yet I couldn’t bear to take them to see him in the hospital to say goodbye. The funeral — yeah, they were too young to be there since they were only 4 and 2 at the time (not like an 8 year old) and my cousin’s young children ended up being a huge distraction for her during the service, keeping her from being able to even listen to the service. But it still bugs me that I wanted to sweep death under the rug. In the “olden days” it was just an accepted part of life. I still remember that scene in Places in the Heart where Sally Field is washing her husband’s lifeless body on the table while the children look on. So there’s one extreme — and now I think we’ve gone clear to the other side where we want to pretend to our children that death doesn’t even occur.

    Why does your blog always get me rambling? 🙂

    • Yeah, I know what you mean with the extremes. I wonder if more people don’t take their kids to funerals these days. But I’m not sure whether it’s a matter of pretending it didn’t happen or protecting them or just doing so because of their own past experiences. I don’t know whether it’s a good or bad thing. There is no perfect age. I guess it all depends on the kid, just like every other parenting dilemma.

      When I was 4 or 5, my great-grandmother died. I did not want to go to the funeral, though I loved her dearly. I never got to say good-bye, never regretted it either. I think kids have a pass. Moms, on the other hand, can’t seem to let it go.

      • I went to my first funeral (a great-uncle I didn’t know well) as a first grader and the “dead body” factor is all that left an impression on me. Later, as family gathered at his widow’s home, my cousin and I played a few rounds of “Uncle Dave is in the closet! Uncle Dave is under the bed! (scream)” Perfect.

  12. Red

    Do not beat yourself up over this one. My children all attend funerals and have since they were very small. Most all of them had been to a funeral before their third birthdays…a side effect of being in a 5-generation-spanning family of over 700 people. (I am one of ten with ten of my own…soon to add five more to the mix…you get the idea…we are prolific.)

    Children are resilient. Talk to him about why he wanted to go, and let him write a letter if he wants to express something to your grandfather. He will rebound. Children always do.


    • Thanks for the idea. We have a much smaller family. Funerals just don’t come up very often. Hopefully I’ll be more prepared next time around. I think you’re right though to start early. It’s a part of life for your kids, natural though unfortunate.

  13. that was sad. i went through a very similar experience with my grandmother a few months ago and my children. i also, didn’t allow them to go and worried whether i did the right thing. I think you did the right thing. at 8, you don’t need a funeral to say goodbye, you keep their memory alive in your hearts and in your house.

  14. My grandfather passed when I was 14. I remember everything at the funeral. For me, it is a memory I try to forget. I like to remember him for his humor and for the way he could sing an old church song on his guitar. I think if my mother would have gave me the choice I would have said yes, but now that I know I would rather have not went. Choices…choices….it’s hard to know what the right one is for your children. Take care and I’m sorry for your loss.

  15. Very touching post, Muddled. I recently lost it during a brief (probably only seconds long) grieving period where I nearly witnessed my youngest child being struck by a moving car — not knowing whether my child would make that fateful step, the driver not seeing her nor slowing down. When the moment had passed and she escaped certain death, my knees began to wobble as we as we continued walking. It wasn’t until several minutes later that I completely broke down…as if my child HAD been struck. The emotions were simply unavoidable.

    I think it’s good for a child to see a vulnerable parent at times. To them, it “humanizes” us and lets them know that we are also scared sometimes. My child knew full well what my feelings were over the matter. During our next funeral service (when the kids attend), I won’t hold back.

    I think you did the right think avoiding your 8-yr-old’s memory of a dead grandfather. It’s way better he remember him in his living days, when they were “connected”. Those are the memories that will carry him through his life — and your joyful, live grandfather will live on in him.

    My condolences for your loss, even if it was a year ago. My grandfather has been gone for over 30 now, and I still miss him like crazy.

    • I know exactly what you mean on all counts. My kids definitely witness me at my most vulnerable at times. And I think they should. They see me mad. They see me apologize. They see me cry. (Though this is not a daily occurrence!)

      And just a few weeks ago, one of my kids nearly rode their bike into the street in front of a moving car. It was so close. One of those moments when you realize how quickly things can change, how easily you could lose them. It’s scary.

  16. That’s a hard call.

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