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What I tell my granddaughter about her mother's suicide

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My granddaughter just turned 3. Her mother - my daughter - committed suicide on Feb. 9, a little more than a month before her 26th birthday, and six weeks before her daughter's third.

In the chaos of the weeks that followed, I wasn't thinking clearly about anything. I barely recall being able to function at all, but with the help of a close friend, I did. She helped me through that astonishing first week. I was numb, in shock and truly, deeply sad.

Flowers and cards were delivered by the armloads. The phone never stopped ringing, the BlackBerry never stopped flashing and sleep would not come. I couldn't eat, but I regularly cried a roomful of tears.

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I was desperately racked by pain and sorrow. I was lost. So many questions and not enough answers. The only person able to offer any consolation no longer here. I couldn't make that phone call any more. It was all backward.

Discovering that my daughter had unexpectedly taken her own life was like being thrown into a world where nothing makes sense and nothing is clear. I couldn't envision a tomorrow followed by another torturous day, but every day the sun came up, and every evening the sun set.

Life went on and the days flew past. There were so many things to do. Like planning a funeral and packing up her apartment - the hardest things I have ever had to do. Every effort was cloaked in a silent scream.

It wasn't until after the funeral and the parting of so many, while still in the midst of my own impenetrable grief, that I began to refocus on the three-year-old left without her mommy and being raised alone by her father. What do we do now?

A dear friend of mine is a pediatric nurse practitioner who gave us sound advice after the funeral, where she delivered a memorable and heart-wrenching eulogy. I trusted her input as she would know about dealing with a child's grief: She lost her husband when their child was just 2.

As we gathered for drinks afterward, she said: "By all means, talk about Mommy. And use the correct words. Don't say, 'Mommy went away,' say, 'Mommy died.' "

My granddaughter can't comprehend what "died" means, but it's important the language we use is correct. A few months have passed and she'll say "Mommy died" if asked, and will sometimes volunteer it out of the blue, but we know she doesn't understand the finality of what that means.

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We have not discussed any details with her, of course, but one day in the future when she's older, if she asks (which is highly likely), we will tell her what happened in an age-appropriate way. I will give her the trunk I filled with all sorts of memories of her mother, gathered since that fateful day.

For her, it will be a treasure chest of all things Mommy to which she might not otherwise have access. I was clear enough to do that. I knew her mother would have been glad that I did.

My therapist told me my granddaughter won't understand the concept of death until she's about 8. This appears to be true. She'll say things like, "Mommy took me to daycare yesterday," followed by, "When is Mommy picking me up?"

I won't comment on the yesterday story, but I will gently say that mommy won't be picking her up any more. More often now, she'll remember and say, "Because Mommy died?"

Yes, I'll tell her sadly, she did.

"Why?" she asks after everything we say. Because she's 3, she will move on quickly from there once satisfied with all the answers, many repeated over and over again.

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I realized the other day after dropping her off at daycare that I'll be sad again when she stops talking about Mommy as much, and eventually not at all. I drove home with tears streaming, as I often do. Sometimes I wonder, too, when my tears will stop.

I took my friend's good advice because I think it's completely fair and reasonable and wonderful to somehow keep the memory of her mother alive in whatever small way we can. When my granddaughter is with me, I'll talk about her mother in happy ways.

For instance, if we're eating ice cream (she loves strawberry), I'll say, "Strawberry was Mommy's favourite too." (It was). She seems genuinely delighted to hear these things. "Me too!" she'll say happily in return.

Sometimes we'll browse through old photos. We don't dwell on them, but we smile at the memory of a mommy who loved her more than life itself. This we know was true.

Sometimes, when she's sad, she'll cry and say, "I want my mommy."

It's at these moments that I say, "Me too." It conjures up the deep sadness we all feel at this kind of incomprehensible and tragic loss.

As her mother, I still find it difficult to process what has just transpired, but I'm reminded that it's only been a few months. The weather has warmed up. Would she have felt better now? I have no more answers than I did before, but a gradual acceptance of those things I can't change is beginning to surface.

I know I can't bring my daughter back, but I can help to ensure that her daughter's life continues to be filled with love, hope and happiness as I continue to work my way through one of the most heartbreaking experiences I've had to endure.

Caroline Donelle lives in Montreal.

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