My husband’s grandfather, Leo Zawatsky, passed away just before Easter. He was 99 years old, a World War II veteran, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Dziadek (“Dodju” or “grandfather” in Polish) as we called him, was faithfully Catholic, deeply joyful, kind, generous and as he called himself “a sentimental old slob” who was always “happy and contented.”
The morning after his death, we told our daughters, Rose and Clare, that he had died. This is not Rose’s first encounter with death. My grandmother passed away in June 2020, and Rose will bring up the funeral from time to time.
A few weeks ago, we went to the wake of my former co-worker, and Rose wanted to walk up to the casket with me to pray for Ms. Dee. So when we sat the girls down and began to explain that Dziadek had gone to be with Jesus, we were expecting a round of questions Rose usually lobbed our way.
“Why did he die? How did he die? When did he die?”
But this time, she just sat there, very still for a few moments.
“Is Dziadek with Jesus now?” Rose finally asked.
“Yes, baby. We pray that he is with Jesus.”
“Well that’s good. Because Jesus isn’t dead. So Dziadek isn’t dead.”
My husband and I just looked at each other, stumped as to how we should respond to this theologically true statement (Jesus is, in fact, very much alive) without further confusing our 4 1/2-year-old child who had learned at Catholic school that Jesus rose from the dead, which meant we will too someday.
“Dziadek is living a new life with Jesus, in heaven,” I slowly explained. “But baby, the next time we visit Pennsylvania, we won’t see him in person like before. He’s not here anymore. He is with Jesus, up there, and we are living our lives, down here.”
It’s not the easiest thing to explain eschatological realities to little kids, but we were trying.
Rose was unfazed. “I know that, Mom. But I’m not going to be sad. Being with Jesus is better than being here. I bet Dziadek is so happy, so I’m going to be too.”
And with that, the early morning conversation we were certain would ruin her day was over, the biggest smile planted on her face as she ran off to the playroom.
“That’s one way to think of it,” my husband said. “I guess I shouldn’t be all that sad after all. … He’s gone, but he’s probably so very happy.”
Grieving the loss of loved ones should certainly never be rushed, nor should we shove down our sadness. But, Rose was — is — right. He is with Jesus, and that is cause for rejoicing.
This is what the Easter season is all about — new life is brought forth because of a death that looked like a defeat but was far from it. We do not just stand at the foot of the cross, mourning and weeping in a valley of tears.
We are invited to rush to an empty tomb, knowing full well that the resurrection of Jesus is a resurrection for us all, and a promise he makes good on, that our death is not permanent either.
In the moments of losing a loved one, we are often overcome (and rightly so!) by a sadness so debilitating that our world seems shattered. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that our loved one’s death, and even our own someday, is far from the final moment we will have. It is merely the next step to more moments with Jesus.
And, as my 4 1/2-year-old reminded me, that’s something we can be happy about.
Katie Prejean McGrady is an award-winning author and host of The Katie McGrady Show on The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM. She lives in Louisiana with her family.