We had the unveiling for my mom recently, a custom in which a covering is literally removed from the headstone, signaling some sort of closure, or at least an ending to the mourning period. Not that there's ever closure—a word I've come to loathe—when a loved one dies, but that's a conversation for another day.
We started prepping the boys a few days ahead of time: "On Sunday, we're going to leave the beach house and drive to the cemetery in New Jersey where Nana is buried and have a small remembering ceremony. It's a chance to talk about her and think about her."
They nodded, apparently getting the picture. At least, we didn't get our usual stream of questions: "Who else will be there? How long will it take to get there? Can we bring the computer?"
It seemed odd that Jesse, who always has at least twice as many questions about a given topic than I can stand to answer, appeared so nonchalant about the unveiling. He considered Nana his special person in the world. He even wrote her a posthumous valentine last February.
But the emotional dam broke the night before the unveiling. After brushing his teeth, Jesse asked, "Mom, can I talk to you? Alone."
I guided him into my room, where, seconds later, he began sobbing.
Hard, uncontrolled sobs. The kind that come from a deep, deep place and can't be restrained. Even by the toughest, most in-control of nine-year-old boys.
"I can't go," he choked out the words. "I miss her too, too much."
I stroked his always-tangled hair and held his quivering little body in my arms. "It will be okay, Jess. I even think it will be a good thing for all of us to think about her and talk about her when we're together," I told him. "I know it's hard to believe, but it will be nice, even though it will be sad too."
"But I think about her every day!" he protested. "You don't know, but I do. I think about her and cry about her and miss her all the time. Sometimes, when Seth is asleep I go into her room and sleep there."
By now, I was sobbing too. I had no wise lessons, no words of comfort that could erase his pain. "I miss her too," I said.
I rubbed Jesse's back until he fell asleep, in my bed.
The next afternoon, we all huddled at the gravesite. The rabbi said a few short prayers, then spoke briefly but passionately, about my mom and the funny, energetic, engaged woman she was. He talked about her great love for her grandchildren, her kindness, her intellect.
Then we all placed small rocks on Nana's headstone—a traditional signal that we'd been there. My sister brought small alphabet stickers so the boys could spell out their names on the smooth, shiny stones before placing them atop the headstone.
After a long, noisy lunch, where the boys received much attention and many hugs from their relatives, we got back into the minivan for the ride back to the beach. I kissed each boy before I got into my seat, leaving Jesse for last.
"You're right mom, it was very, very sad. But also nice," he told me.
Then Seth threw up in the back of the car.