She stumbled into the living room an hour after bedtime, squinting in the sudden light and already a bit rumpled and groggy. Her mother sighed a little, waiting for the latest complaint that the lights were too bright, the TV was too loud, or some new sleep-interrupting factor.
Instead, the little girl – who has had recent moments of seeming mature beyond her years, alarmingly so, but now was a very small and young nine – sniffled a little and announced, “I miss Grandpa Norman.” This seemed rather out of the blue, since he hadn’t been a recent topic of conversation, but she explained that she had been lying in bed, thinking about how much she hated waking up on Monday mornings, and then she started thinking of other things that made her upset, and somehow this wound around to the fact that she would never be able to give Grandpa Norman another hug.
By the time she was born, her great-grandpa was already quite elderly. He had never been one to shower her with gifts or take her to amusement parks, but the memories of walks in the woods, visiting the neighbor’s horse, napping in the chair, these were more than enough for her to know she was loved, and to love him right back, with the simplicity and intensity of childhood.
She cried. It was a sad enough scene all by itself, but had more emphasis because this is a child who holds more than a passing acquaintance with tantrums and drama, but who actually cries out of sheer emotion very rarely.
Her parents reminded her of how they had talked about death in the past. About how, when you are still alive and you love someone, that a little piece of you goes into their heart, and a little piece of them goes into yours. About how that piece of them stays with you, and in you, forever, no matter how far apart you might live or how rarely you might see them. And about how even if the person dies, that little piece of them stays in your heart and loves you forever.
This is why, they explained, your heart hurts sometimes when you’re really missing someone a lot; the little piece that holds the loved one swells a little. But the heart is a magical thing, and can withstand all manner of swelling and stretching and bruising, so it’s OK to feel that hurt. It’s good, in a way, to ache a little, because it reminds you that you’re human and that other people matter.
As it had done in the past, this helped to reassure and comfort the child, as did the promise that her mother would spend some time the next day searching for photos of Grandpa Norman, so that they could look at them and remember him together. The long hug and re-tucking-in from her father helped, too.