Death Through My Daughter’s Eyes–and a Disney Princess

When I heard the news that my mom had only days to live, I panicked over how to tell my kids. How am I going to explain to my 4-year-old twins that Grandma is going to die? I had no experience with Hospice care or watching a loved one slip away in front of my eyes. I dreaded navigating these uncharted waters with my children while I frantically packed for our flights to New York. 

Their only experiences with death were smooshed insects and the dead bird I insisted my husband bury in our backyard last summer. I promised myself I’d order a few children’s books that cover the topic of death. Surely a story about a caterpillar changing into a butterfly or a stuffed velveteen rabbit becoming “real” would put their grandma’s death into a metaphor their 4-year-old minds could comprehend. 

I downloaded Disney’s latest blockbuster, Moana, on my daughter’s iPad to calm her jittery nerves for the flight to my mom’s home in Syracuse. I didn’t have a clue what the movie was about, but my Facebook mommy friends were posting tallies of how many times their daughters watched it per day. Little did I know how much this movie would help me.

Five days after we arrived, my mom passed away. Her liver couldn’t hold up any longer against the Lymphoma cancer cells. My children met her death in the ways I expected; vacillating from “Grandma died and now she’s an angel with wings” to “When is Grandma going to wake up and play with me?”

My daughter Julie, taken by Stefanie Jayne Photography.

My daughter, Julie, was especially close to my mom. She had lots of questions. I had few answers.  Julie was thrilled to see the necklace that Grandma had left for her. She had loved to curl up in her lap as a baby and twirl it in her little fingers. I was thrilled to hear her singing on the way home because singing was one of my mom’s favorite pastimes.  Hearing Julie belt out a duet with Moana over the roar of the plane’s jet engines brought a much-needed smile to my face. 

A week after my mom’s funeral, my daughter caught me with tears in my eyes as I was fixing breakfast. 

“Don’t be sad Mommy. I’m not sad. Cause Grandma’s going to visit me when I’m all alone on a boat in the ocean.” 

Serendipitously, I had picked the perfect movie when I chose Disney’s Moana for my daughter. The movie showcases the close bond between Moana and her grandmother, who dies but continues to guide Moana on her quest to find and fulfill her life’s calling. Gramma Tala even gives Moana her revered necklace. And—you guessed it—her grandmother flaps her angel “wings” to visit her when she is all alone on a boat in the ocean. 

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I can see how easily Julie drew parallels between her Grandma and Moana’s Gramma Tala. My mother was just as spunky, free-spirited, and fun as the movie’s self-proclaimed “Village Crazy Lady”.  She was not afraid to stand apart from the crowd. And just like Gramma Tala, my mom’s greatest worries in life were whether her six children would carry on her spiritual traditions and realize their full potential. To be who they were meant to be.

I admire my daughter’s utmost confidence that her Grandma is an angel who will come to her aid when she needs help. It reminds me of the Bible verse about how we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of God. I was so worried about how my children would cope with my mom’s death, I hardly gave a thought to how I would explain it to myself.  Kind-hearted people told me I would feel my mom’s presence after she died.I didn’t know what feeling to look for. And when I didn’t “feel” anything, I was devastated. I had no idea how to grieve such an impossible, monumental loss.

When I found myself in triage room 50 at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, holding my 18 month-old who needed 3 stitches in his forehead. The medicine meant to relax him had instead caused him to go ballistic—what the doctors called a paradoxical reaction. I had to keep Greyson in a bear hold so he wouldn’t pull out his IV. He was screaming and flailing.  I was scared and on the verge of losing it. I just wanted to call my mom. Tell me what to do, Mom!  You were there for me the night my older son seemed to choke and stop breathing at 3 weeks old. I need you now too! 

Suddenly I knew exactly what my mom would say to me. She’d say, “Kristen, you have to stay perfectly calm. He’ll pick up on how you’re feeling. Kids can sense that when you hold them.” 

I took a few deep breaths and tried to sing to him. To myself. To stay calm. Just then, I happened to look up and notice the large framed artwork on the wall beside me. It was a painting of a lonely wooden canoe, adrift at sea.

“Don’t be sad Mommy. I’m not sad. Cause Grandma’s going to visit me when I’m all alone on a boat in the ocean.” 

In the six weeks since my mother died, I’ve come to realize that the closest connection I have left with her is through my daughter. I hope that Julie will be at my bedside and hold my hand when it is my turn to face death like I did for my own mother. Julie is teaching me more about how to grieve and accept my mom’s death than I am teaching her.  I’ve decided I need to follow my daughter’s lead. Obviously, she somehow knows The Way

Last week, Julie announced to me “I miss Grandma because she can’t play princesses and ponies with me anymore. But it’s okay because she’ll always be in my heart.”

“Will she always be in your heart, Mommy?”

Always, my sweet girl. 

Well done Disney. Well done.

 

My mom, Ruth Ann Baumbach, with my twins, taken 7 weeks before she passed away on July 16, 2017.

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3 Responses to Death Through My Daughter’s Eyes–and a Disney Princess

  1. Brooke Kingsley September 7, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    Kristen — This a beautifully written piece for so many reasons! A treasure for you, your daughter, and readers. Thank you for sharing in the blog (and thank you to Sarah for sharing in Fredericksburg!) You have a wonderful gift in writing… definitely work on that book! All the best to you to you and your family!

  2. Carla Buckley September 7, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    Mrs. Shambarger, your story was beautifully written. I cried when I read it. I will always remember Julie’s wonderful words for her grandmother. I was so close to my grandmother also and truly miss her. I’m glad you have so many wonderful memories of your mom that you will cherish for a lifetime. May God bless you and your family. Love and hugs. 💖💐🙏🏻

  3. Jen
    Jen September 18, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    My Mom passed away nine years ago and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for this article – it has brought tears to my eyes and makes me feel a little less alone. XOXO

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