A Death in the Family
On Christmas Eve, my husband's grandfather Norman died. Michael went to the funeral in Florida with his father, but my mother-in-law couldn't go because of a recent hip surgery. I told her I would bring the boys over the day of the funeral. She worried that they might get frightened if they saw her or my sister-in-law crying. I told her she didn't have to worry about that, because I had prepared them.
I don't believe in hiding death or mourning from my kids. Death doesn't have to be any more mysterious than it already is.
The first family death my boys experienced was when they were 4 and 6 years old, when my Nana Pearl died on January 19, 2010. Nana died in her bedroom at the age of 91 with her children, grandchildren and nurses around her. I was less than a foot from her when she took her last breath. The entire experience completely changed my relationship to death. I witnessed every stage of the dying process – the loss of appetite, frequent slumbering, calling to her husband and sisters, the throes, the irregular, noisy breathing and the end, when her body dimmed and she was gone. She had a peaceful, natural death, and it was remarkable to be with her when she left this world.
As a little girl, I sensed that I should have been sad when older relatives died. But since I didn’t know my grandfather or great-grandmother very well, I didn’t experience sadness. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong. I also wasn't allowed to go to my babysitter Vivi's funeral, who I adored. She died of meningoencephalitis when I was 10. I heard someone say that her body looked so small in the casket, and I imagined Vivi with a shriveled body no bigger than an infant's. The image was most likely more frightening in my imagination. I wish I had seen her with my own eyes.
My husband and I decided that the best way to help our children deal with mourning was to speak to them succinctly and plainly about what happens when someone dies.
"It's OK to not know how to feel about it. There is no wrong way to feel," we told them.
"Nana lived to 91 and it was time for her to die."
"Grandmom and Poppi and your aunts and I are going to be very sad and cry a lot," I said.
"It hurts to lose someone you love. It hurts very much."
"You can give hugs to me and grandmom and your aunts and say you are sorry that Nana died."
"Do you have any questions?"
They did. And they wanted to see her.
When we got to the funeral home, I walked with them to see the half-open casket before other mourners arrived. Ezra asked if you lose your legs when you die. I explained that you couldn't see her legs, but they were still there. Maxon asked how Nana got inside "the treasure box," which I think is a much better term than casket. They said she didn't look like Nana. I explained that only Nana's body was in the treasure box, and what made Nana loving and beautiful and special — her soul — was gone. They wanted to know where the soul went. I told them that people believe different things about what happens to the soul. It was up to them to decide what made the most sense in their minds.
At the burial site, Maxon shoveled dirt onto the casket. At the shiva, they learned how to comfort and support family members who are mourning. I was really proud of my boys, who were polite and respectful that long and emotional day. My mother told everyone the treasure box story.
So, when Stormin' Norman died, we handled it the same way. And on the day of the funeral, when the boys gave my sister- and mother-in-law hugs and said they were sorry, I knew they weren't uncomfortable or afraid. And again, they made me very proud.