Live from the Lilith Blog

April 27, 2010 by

Anyu

I am back on the train again. Strangely, this morning, it is the window that is foggy, preventing me from seeing clearly the world beyond, rather than the air being full of Bay Area morning fog. Last week, my mother in law passed away unexpectedly. I have just returned from the week of sitting Shiva with my husband and his family. My mother, sister, and her baby flew across the country from New York to be with our daughters. A whirlwind of motion in an attempt to preserve some semblance of stability, in a world that has become so suddenly foggy.

How do you talk to children about death? In the few weeks that their grandmother was very sick, we began to try to prepare our children. “Your Anyu is very sick,” we told them, “and Papa is going to visit her to try and help her feel better.” Our oldest furrowed her brow, and then said: “Papa, don’t get too close – we don’t want you to get sick.”

One beautiful afternoon on Passover, when the weather in Palo Alto seemed a mockery of the cold within us, I was sitting in our garden with the girls, and the little one noticed a bee on the ground. “Look!” she shouted, and we all ran over. The bee was hobbling, on the verge of death. “That bee is very sick,” I told the girls. “It will most probably die soon.” The little one looked closely at the bee. “Bee – sick,” she said slowly, “and Anyu sick.”

When I received the dreaded phone call, I held the girls close, and told them that Anyu had died. The older one tried to explain it to the little one: “When someone dies, it means we never see them again.” And then she asked me: “Did Anyu get old?” Their Anyu was just shy of 62; her own mother is alive, 93 years old, and is in mourning for her daughter. All day long, the older one was trying to work it out. “I’m going to die before my sister, and you’re going to die before Papa, and Papa’s going to die before me…” attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible.

We made pictures and talked about memories and read all of the books and played with all of the toys and wore all of the clothes Anyu had given them. Now that their father has returned, unshaven and watery-eyed, they are slightly wary of him. Their windows, through which they peer bright-eyed and joyous, are clear, like those on the other side of this train; ours are so blurry it seems impossible to imagine clear sight. They cannot comprehend their own loss. They have lost a grandmother, a friend, a confidante, an advocate, a role-model. They have lost one of the finite number of people on this planet who love them more than anything in the world.

They watch us closely as we blink our eyes, and with our damp sleeves try to rub at the windows, hoping the sun will begin to shine through.

–Maya Bernstein


  • nechama tamler

    thank you for sharing these profound and beautiful thoughts, Maya. Today would have been the 98th birthday of my own dear mother (z”l) and I have been thinking about her all day. My heart goes out to you and I am so very sorry that you and Noam have to deal with this tremendous loss, way way too early, and out of step with the generations since your mother-in-law’s own mother is still alive. It is a pain that cannot be assuaged except by the passage of time and sweet memories.

  • Nechama Liss-Levinson

    Maya, your thoughts are so movingly expressed in your posting. My own parents died twenty-five years ago, when my own daughters were just 4 and 7 years old. My little one offered a game for us to play; let’s pretend Bubbles and JoJo never died. My older daugher created a Grandma museum during the shiva, putting out all of the toys, clothes, etc, that her grandma had given to her. I would like to suggest a book that I wrote as possibly being helpful for your children (who can experience the workbook on their own, or with your or your husband), “When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing with Shiva and the Year Beyond” (Jewish Lights Press; available from Amazon.com) May the memory of Anyu bring comfort to you all.