Death becomes us.
Summer, especially when you live in a place with brutally long winters, is an explosion of new life. We soak it all in around here because we know that we could, after watching the last flake fall in May, be shoveling snow again by mid-October. No moment of warmth goes to waste.
But this summer was unusual; amidst the riotous beach trips and bike rides, our children had their first brush with death.
My husband’s grandmother passed away, and while her passing wasn’t entirely unexpected, her rapid decline was. We were caught off guard, not having laid the groundwork for the conversations we had to have with our kids.
When my own great-grandmother and grandfather died, I wasn’t allowed to attend the funerals. It wasn’t seen as an appropriate place for children; I can remember asking if I could go to my grandfather’s funeral and being quite upset when the answer was no. His death didn’t feel real to me. A skeptical kid, I wasn’t sure if I could believe it.
So, I thought it was important for our kids to come with us to the funeral home, but I realized that it would present some challenges. Firstly, they didn’t want to go. We had scheduled a trip to see their cousins on my side of the family and they were devastated that we had to change our plans. To quote my daughter: “Why do we have to go?!? Great-Grandma is dead, it’s not like she’s going to know if we’re there or not!” Touché, young one.
Secondly, it was going to be an open casket. The reality of conversion is that you’re often faced with some of the deepest contrasts in belief systems and rituals at the worst possible times. Our kids were terrified of this figure in the box and wouldn’t approach it. It looked nothing like the grandmother they had known and they wanted nothing to do with it. So they spent the visitation clowning around with their cousins in an adjoining room—perhaps not the somber mood that the older family members were hoping for.
Then there was the funeral itself. We decided that we would let my father-in-law take our kids out to lunch and that we’d go to the funeral service without them. I didn’t have a lot of faith that they could sit politely, especially with grumbling tummies, while listening to the pastor from their great-grandmother’s evangelical church give a very religious sermon.
But they joined us again for the burial and, while it was pretty hard to explain some of the liturgical messages to them in a way that both made sense and didn’t make them worry about going to hell as one of the unredeemed, it was valuable for them to experience that cyclical ritual. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, life to death.
As with so many parenting decisions, I’m still not sure it was the right one, but I hope that they are able to attach the memory of her passing to the good memories they have of their great-grandmother and that it will give them a more complete sense of who she was, in all of her complexity, that they can carry forward into their lives.