In January, my nonna (grandmother) passed away. She was 90 years old, and though they didn’t speak the same language, Angel really thought her bis-nonna (great grandmother in my family’s dialect) was pretty neat. After all, not everyone has a walker and a cane and other cool things to get around. And bis-nonna loved to watch her great-grandkids play and really loved it when they’d come and give her kisses.
Bis-nonna had a couple of rough years, and we knew that the end wasn’t far off. When she was hospitalized in January, it soon became apparent that it was time. It’s the first time that Angel has experienced death so close at home (other than her pet fish dying a couple years ago). With her sensory issues and anxiety, we had to do some advance planning. Here is what worked for us:
1) When we went to the hospital to visit nonna, we didn’t take Angel or Big Kid with us. She wasn’t yet in palliative care, but I didn’t want to overwhelm the girls with the long trip and I didn’t really want them to remember her that way.
2) Lots of talk. We let Angel know when bis-nonna was in the hospital. When it became apparent that she wasn’t going to be leaving, we let her know as gently as possible that bis-nonna was dying and we let her ask lots of questions. And she asked a lot of questions. A lot of her concern was that her nonno, my father, wouldn’t have any parents any more. It was nice to see her empathy in the midst of her anxiety.
3) Limited involvement. I come from a large Italian family. There were many visitations at the funeral home and I had to be present for all of them. I kept the kids in school to keep their routines in tact. I let both of their teachers know what was going on just to keep them in the loop. The girls went to stay with my husband’s parents so that we could be at the funeral home. The kids only came with us to the last visitation period, right before the service.
4). Preparation. I let both girls know what to expect. I let them know about the open casket and told them that it looked like bis-nonna was sleeping. The first time I saw an open casket when I was a child, I didn’t know what to expect and when I saw it, I ran out of the room and refused to return. I didn’t want that for my girls, especially for the anxious one. We focussed on how bis-nonna wasn’t sick any more and that she was in heaven now. I told them that people wanted to let us know that they missed bis-nonna and they might say things like “my condolences” or “sorry for your loss” and that they should say “thank you” and shake hands (or be kissed on both cheeks if it was a family member!). Angel was most interested to hear that after the service there would be food! I wanted to bring earphones for Angel, but the noise cancelling ones had disappeared, so we went without them. I did pack a snack for her and a few things to do.
So, how did she do? Angel did very well. I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I had kind of prepared myself for the worst. She didn’t flinch when we paid our respects and she was very happy to see some of our family that we don’t see often. She was especially happy for the chance to help her nonno feel better. The noise in the visitation room did become too loud for her, so we went out and sat in the hall on a comfy chair and had a little squish time and a chat. I sent Angel and Big Kid down to the room where the ceremony was being held with a family member on the other side of the family so that they didn’t have to see the closing of the casket and the emotional state of all the grown ups. She sat very well through the service and we continued to make accommodations in the afternoon when we spent some time outside of the lunch room later when it got too loud for her.
Angel still asks questions about bis-nonna and they come up at odd times. It seems like she’s looking for confirmation, just to be sure that the information is still the same. We just answer her questions and move on. Now that we are a little farther removed from the situation, she is less fixated on death and funerals. I’m glad to know that she is able to handle this type of situation, but I hope it is not something that we have to go through again very soon.