by M. J. Joachim
Explaining death to a child, or anyone for that matter, is a difficult task at best. We don’t like to talk about death. We don’t like to examine its cause, or go back to the beginning. It makes us vulnerable.
Children are already weak in so many ways. They seem so far from death because of their youth; it is exactly this attribute that helps them understand death much more easily than many adults.
When my dad died, I had the unbearable task of explaining death to my own children, Maria and Olivia. They were six and three at the time. I contemplated many scenarios which might explain how and why people die to my girls. As it turned out, my daughters ended up explaining death to me. Their openness and love helped all of us embrace change. Their sensitivity shed new light on what death is all about.
It is with great pleasure that I share the insights of my daughters with you. Their first experience with death was very positive and moving. They taught me to step back, and let them observe what is taking place when someone dies. They taught me not to shield them from the pain, and allow them to ask questions. My girls helped me understand that death is not a bad thing, even though it is an undesired fact of life. Death affects emotions, but it is of the spirit. Maria and Olivia showed me that the spirit is much closer to children than we realize.
A Birthday in Heaven
There was so much hustle and bustle going on in the house. Eight kids and their families were flying in from around the country. Dad was sick with cancer, and he only had a few days left to live. I arrived early. Dad had turned seventy-two this week, and I needed to be there. I brought my oldest child Maria with me. She had a special bond with her grandpa, and I knew he would be thrilled to see her on his birthday.
Maria and I sat quietly during the two hour plane ride. She sensed my sadness, though she didn’t understand it. We had just seen grandpa a few months earlier for my birthday. He wasn’t sick then, and Maria couldn’t grasp why I was certain he was going home to Heaven. She was only six, and she never knew grandpa to be anything but strong.
When we got to the house, Maria ran in to hug grandpa. He came hobbling down the hall, calling her name in a scratchy voice. Maria stopped short. She looked up at her grandpa. He didn’t look anything like the big, husky man who used to pick her up, toss her in the air, and give her hugs so big they would make bears jealous. She turned away in uncertainty. She was scared, but not of grandpa. She was scared of the illness that had changed him.
Grandpa went into the family room. He sat in the pale blue, overstuffed chair. Maria was cautious. She walked over to him and asked, “Do you hurt, Grandpa?” My dad motioned her to sit on his lap like she used to, but he didn’t ask her to. Maria walked closer, and my dad looked into her eyes. “Are you scared?” she asked as she leaned up against his leg, afraid to put her weight on him.
Later that night, Maria asked me about death. I told her that life is a process. I talked to her about my pregnancy with her. Up until I had conceived her, I didn’t know what it was like to carry a child. I just knew that it was a very special thing to do. We talked about how she grew in my tummy, and used to kick me. She was growing inside of me, but she wouldn’t be able to stay there forever. She was going to get a birthday, and grow in a different way after she left the comfort of my belly. She asked me if I ever missed having her in my belly. I thought about it for a moment. Finally, I told her that I did, but not enough to keep her from getting held in my arms. “So grandpa is going to be held in God’s arms?” Maria asked. “Yes, honey. Something like that,” I said with a tear running down my cheek.
A few days later, my husband and two young children arrived. Dad was in his final hours, and he died the next day. There were so many people around. Some of my siblings hadn’t seen each other in several months. It was good to have everyone together again. The younger grandchildren were all playing, while the teens were sitting on the patio catching up on old times. This was a very sad time because of the circumstance that brought us together, but in a strange sense, it was also wonderful.
My daughter Olivia, who was three, had quietly decided to go inside. Maria watched her, and noticed that she looked confused and sad. Maria went over to Olivia, and comforted her. “It’s okay,” she said. “Grandpa is having a birthday in Heaven.”
Olivia looked up at her sister. She got that look of determination that only she can express so clearly. She went from room to room to find me. Then she took my hand, and started dragging me down the hall. I thought she was taking me to my room, but she stopped at the end. She looked to the right, where my room was, and then looked left. She saw grandpa’s room, and started pulling me in that direction.
“No, Sweetheart. Grandpa isn’t here anymore. He’s not in his room, honey,” I tried to explain. Olivia just kept pulling me. I didn’t know what to do, so I went with her. “See, Grandpa isn’t here.” I told her. Olivia looked around. The bed where Grandpa had died was already made. His pillow lay on top of the bedspread. His green, glass ashtray was on the nightstand with his prayer beads. Olivia walked over to the nightstand. She glided her hand across the bed where grandpa had died just a short time before. She touched his ashtray and rosary. Then she put her cheek on his pillow. All of a sudden, she began to began to exclaim, “Oh, ohoh, ah, oh.” I hurried over to her. “What’s wrong, honey?” I asked. “Nothing, Mama,” she said. “Grandpa gave me a hug.”
I realized at that moment, all of the words I had rehearsed to explain death to my children, were in vain. They understood death, and accepted it much more readily, than most of the people crying in the other room. Death is not something you need to talk about with young children. It is something you allow them to actively participate in, letting them come to terms with it in their own way. Maria related death to something she could understand. She then reached out to her sister, so that Olivia could determine how to feel. Olivia was not afraid of death. She was curious. When I allowed her to see, and touch my dad’s bed, she understood death very easily. And in fact, she gave me comfort in my belief that death is a beginning.
That’s all for now, kind followers. Until next time, I wish you well.
Footnote: My dad passed over 15 years ago. This story was written sometime after that. It is a true story, one of my favorites, I have written. The names of my children are changed for obvious reasons. Their response to Grandpa dying moves my heart today, just as much today, as it did when it happened.
Photo credit: Bergfriedhof Heidelberg Gräberfeld, 4028mdk09, Creative Commons Attribution License
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