“Why don’t you ask that lady priest at your church to talk with them?”
That was the advice Mary got from her mother-in-law. The problem was that her four children were grief-stricken because their grandfather had just died. The family’s loss was really affecting her young boys. One of them, Alex, was having such a tough time that he was regressing developmentally. Mary was worried, and she needed some help.
So Mary came to me, and asked if I would meet with her sons, who are between five and eight. She didn’t want to single Alex out. She opted to bring them and wait in another room, so that they would feel free to say what was on their minds. She came up with the great idea of having them bring photos of them with their grandfather, for them to show me.
The lady priest had time to do some thinking about how to approach the situation.
I’m no expert on children and grieving, and what I found online wasn’t tremendously helpful. I remembered my experience leading Godly Play, a Montessori-based Sunday school curriculum: the Godly Play practice is to introduce ideas and invite the children to wonder aloud about the story. Afterwards, the children use art supplies to do their “work” of reflecting on the story. I wanted to hear from the children, to invite them to tell me their stories about their grandfather.
I gathered five colors of polymer clay, paper, and crayons, and piled them on my coffee table. They liked the art supplies, but had no interest in the stuffed animals I had tucked between the throw pillows on my office couch. With a few prompts they started telling me all about their Poppa: “He was a hero! He was shot by Nazis! He always took off his hat indoors, because he was a gentleman. He gave great hugs. He got sick. He was in the hospital and hurting for a long time. He died. He is in heaven.” They showed me dear photos of a smiling man with his grandsons: at the ballpark, at the beach, at a family celebration. “We’re very sad,“ they said. “We miss him. We want him to come back.“
“Heaven,“ I said. “Tell me about heaven.” The boys knew all about heaven—they were experts. “Heaven is wonderful! It is always sunny. Nobody hurts there, anymore. God is there, with the angels. You walk around all day, on the puffy clouds. There are rainbows all the time.” Alex’s little voice made it sound like wainbows. I’m not sure, but they may have mentioned ice cream… Each child piped up, adding his contribution to his brothers’, filling in the picture of heaven.
As the children talked, their fingers were busy making sculptures out of clay—including a large pair of bright green eyeglasses on a figure that turned out to be Poppa in the hospital bed. “Heaven sounds great,” I said. They all nodded. “If it is so great,” I said, “I wonder if heaven has windows?” The boys thought about this, looking up to catch the idea. Yes, they decided, heaven must have windows. How could it be heaven if there weren’t any windows?
“If there are windows, do you think that your Poppa might look out a window sometime?” I asked. Emphatic nods. “And if he did, do you think he might be able to look IN a window? Like this one?” I pointed to the window in my study. “Don’t you think he would want to see you, and see what you are doing?” Four bobble heads nodded enthusiastically. Yes, because, well, why not? Then I said, “Can you imagine that your Poppa is looking through that window? What would you do if he was?”
If only you could have seen those four little boys clambering over each other to get to that window, diving under and around each other like wiggling puppies. They waved and blew kisses with both hands. “We love you, Poppa! We miss you! We miss your hugs!” It was hard to hold it together and I was glad they had their backs to the lady priest.
They looked a bit happier when they sat back down and resumed work with clay and paper. I was hopeful, but I wasn’t sure; I asked if it was good to talk about their Poppa, or if it made them feel sad. The boys said they wanted to talk about him, but they only talked to each other. They knew that their Mom and Dad talked about their Poppa, but only when the brothers weren’t in the room. “We don’t want to make them sad,” the oldest boy said. “And they don’t want to make us sad. So we don’t talk about him all together, and that makes us more sad.“
I asked the boys to keep working, and said I would go get their Mom. I slipped out and had a brief word with Mary to let her know what they said. I reported without comment. She is a wise and wonderful mother; her eyebrows rose when I got to the last part. Enough said.
I knelt down by the door as they were leaving, and was the grateful recipient of three enthusiastic hugs from the younger boys, and one slightly awkward clinch from the eight-year-old. They waved as they scrambled down the walk; one boy clutched an unfinished drawing flapping behind him like a wing. They left the sculptures on the table for me.
I could hardly wait to talk to Mary the following Sunday after church.
“Do you think it made a difference? Did our conversation help them?” Mary looked surprised by the question. “Yes, it helped them! Alex is like a new kid!” Really? “No more problems—he never looked back. It helped all of them,” she said. “They are all talking about Poppa’s window. They want him to be really proud of them—because that’s who my kids are. They figure he could be watching any time.”
And now, nearly a year later, Poppa’s window is part of their family lexicon. With Mary’s encouragement, I posted a sign on the Sunday school bulletin board telling parents that the clergy are here for children who are dealing with grief and loss—even that of a beloved pet. I kept the sculptures, and the pictures of the boys’ grandfather, by my desk for months. In my line of work it can be hard to find tangible evidence that what I do makes a difference in people’s lives; and I like to hold on to things that remind me of what I know to be true—that it does. Such is the life of a lady priest.
 Names have been changed to maintain privacy. This is published with the Mom’s permission.