It is often said that to really experience life, you should see it through the eyes of a child. Never is that more true than when there is a death in the family.
On October 4, 2012, my father passed away expectedly unexpectedly, if that makes sense. He had been battling esophageal cancer for 9 months and while doing well on chemo, he developed massive lung issues that ultimately lead to an unexpected passing. His death was shocking, painful and overwhelming. And while grown ups are equipped with the coping skills and rationale to navigate through the pain, children cope while thinking out loud and with questions. Lots and lots of questions. My kids were no exception.
My kids’ questions ranged from the practical to the existential. They wanted to know where Poppy was right after he died and where he’d be going until we could get to Texas to make the arrangements. They wanted to know what his last words were and whether heaven was cold. They wanted to hear that they were safe and that their other grandparents weren’t going to leave them suddenly, too. They wanted to know if they were going to get to go out to dinner every night we were in Texas (details are incredibly important to a 7 and 10 year old). We fielded questions at the funeral home regarding the casket and the embalming process (“No, sweetheart, you cannot go see the tools they use”….). And, we gently explained to our 10 year old that, no, Poppy was not going to be buried in the backyard.
With every question answered, my husband and I thought we’d explained death in an understandable, age appropriate way. And then I had the following conversation with our 7 year old:
Scene: An hour or so before my father’s wake.
Me: “Come on, sweetie, it’s time to get showered and dressed to go see Poppy. Let’s go put your pretty dress on that we brought with us”.
7YO, look of complete surprise: “Uhm, Mommy? Why am I wearing a pretty dress there and shouldn’t I shower afterwards?”
Me: “Well, because it’s respectful to wear nice clothes at a time like this and showering is customary.”
7YO, starting to look incredulous: “Uhm, Mommy? I think I should wear old clothes because we are going to get filthy.”
Me: “Sweetheart, what exactly do you think we are going to do?”
7YO, with an eye roll and a “Mommy is the Village Idiot” tone: “Uhm, we are going to BURY Poppy. We are going to be filthy from all the digging with the shovels.”
Oh. Ooooh. She doesn’t get it. Cue discussion of the word “bury” and what it means to “bury” a loved one.
Throughout the entire funeral process, our kids amazed us with their grace and their strength. When our 10 year old wrote a letter to go in my father’s casket, he surprised us with his maturity and with his ability to express his grief as only a 10 year old can. He wrote that he was glad my father “didn’t have to live forever” and he told my dad that “of all the angels in heaven, you are the most unique”. And when he signed it simply, “I wish you a happy eternal life”, we just had to smile at the simplicity.
When I think back on the events in the fall and with six months having passed, I realize that it was my children and their simple ways of looking at life that got me through the toughest times. Looking through the eyes of my children helped me heal and has helped me help them. And, truth be told, I was grateful for those moments my kids gave me that made me laugh out loud. Because in those tough moments if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. This fruit loop chooses laughter and knows her dad is laughing somewhere, too….