My wife’s grandmother died in the winter of 1990 after a slow decline. Our daughter, Annie, was a few months shy of her second birthday. Judy and I brought her to a small, dark church in Reading to meet relatives who’d never had a chance to see her in the flesh. We figured that Annie wouldn’t understand the proceedings and be affected, and that the sight of her might dispel some of the gloom. Relatives filtered in before the service began, and I attended to Annie as folks made their introductions and chatted together in small groups.
I took Annie back to Judy’s parents before the minister made his appearance as we didn’t think that she could make it through the service without causing a disruption. Annie rarely made a commotion in public, but liked to socialize with anyone sitting near her. She peeped over the tops of booths in restaurants and once charmed a complete stranger into handing us ten bucks. He told us to buy a gift for our little darling. Judy and I imagined her crawling along a pew to canvas mourners for their time and attention.
We had a snack and played on the carpet with dolls and stuffed animals. Judy and her parents came home, and Annie seemed unfazed by her glimpse of death and bereavement. But she must have absorbed some understanding of the seriousness of a funeral. A few days later she asked Judy, “What happened to Great Grandma Alma?” Judy told her that Alma had died. Annie grew somber and quietly asked her mother, “Are you going to die?” My wife made a quick decision. She knew that Annie’s understanding of time, at that stage in her development, probably stretched forward about two weeks. She could understand and anticipate upcoming events only if they occurred within a short span. So Judy said, “No, Annie. I’m not going to die.” Then she asked, “Am I going to die?” “No, Annie, you’re not going to die,” my wife reassured her.
That spring we drove to Judy’s parents for Easter. Judy’s other grandmother, Lily, attended the family dinner. Someone must have told my daughter that the elderly woman with white hair was her great grandmother.
Annie had developed considerable language skills by that age, but did not know that “great grandmother” could refer to more than one person. During a lull in the conversation, Annie got her mother’s attention and pointed at Lily. Annie said, “Great Grandma died. She got better.”