Not long ago my great aunt lost a brief battle with cancer, and, although my son who was just about 3 months old at the time had never met her, it got me thinking about my own first experiences with death. I’m not talking about the loss of a cat, or a hamster, or the goldfish that always came back to life. I'm talking about real, unforgettable loss, the kind that plays with your heart and forever alters your life. And, even more so, it got me thinking about how I was introduced to death, how it was explained to me by the adults in my life and how I was going to explain death to my son when the time comes.
The first real memory I have of someone close to me passing away I was barely five. His name was Christopher and he was one of my dearest friends. Even now as I try to recall the tragic events of his final days, it appears just as vague, and confusing to me as it did then. Although I have no audible recollection of the high-pitched sound of my grandparents old rotary phone, I can still remember the look of pure anguish that swept across my grandfathers face as he hung up the phone. He did not attempt to stifle the tears that flowed freely down his face when he told me what had happened. I did not understand the severity of his words, and therefore reacted just as I would expect most young children would.
Later that week my grandfather took me to visit the funeral home. I remember seeing a young boy whose hair had been shaved; a child whom I did not recognize as my friend lying peacefully in a wooden casket. Turning to my grandfather I asked, “Papa, why is that boy sleeping?” He just hung his head and cried. No real explanation of death was given to me, and I went on wondering why my friend could no longer come out and play with me. Didn’t he like me anymore? Was it my fault? His family was still in the house down the road, why wasn’t he? Did they not want him anymore? Would my family decide they no longer wanted me one day and I’d just disappear too?
Death is inevitable, and there will come a point in the lives of my children when someone close to them dies. When that time comes, I am not certain how I will be able to put the circle of life (and death) into words that their young minds will comprehend. My first experience with memorable death left me with the belief that people just stop existing. The world around you continues to move forward, but sometimes the people in it, for no good reason, just vanish. It wasn’t until several years later, after the passing of one of my classmates, Nicole, that I truly began to understand death and grieving.
Nicole was born with muscular dystrophy, a severe condition that confined her to a wheelchair and later took her life. Despite her physical challenges, she had the biggest heart of anyone I had ever known, even to this day. As I returned home from school, after having learned of her passing, I went to tell my mother. Since Nicole had moved to another school the year before, all I wanted to do was ask if she remembered her. I guess my mother had not been having a very good day herself because I can still hear the annoyance in her voice when she told me to ‘get to the point; she doesn’t need the whole story.’ “There is no story. She’s DEAD.” I shouted at her and ran out the front door, straight into the arms of my grandmother. Who talked to me about life and death and explained how everyone grieves differently. My mother never approached the subject again, and I cried for what felt like days. I finally understood what it meant to be gone from the world forever.
I realize that my mother did not intentionally react so harshly, she had no way of knowing what I was going to tell her, even though at the time it felt like she was angry at me for grieving. Never the less, my first two experiences with death were handled in two very different ways by the adults in my life, leaving me to question how I am supposed approach the subject with my sons when it becomes their turn to grieve the loss of a loved one.Do I share openly in their pain? Let them see my tears, but not ever truly explain why those tears exist? Or, do I ignore the matter and hope they figure it out on their own?