Saying goodbye: Explaining death to children

I was seven years old when my grandma died from cancer right before Thanksgiving. I can still remember sketchy details of the whole event. Being pulled out of school early, spending what felt like days at the funeral home. I remember not totally being comfortable being at the wake and feeling uncomfortable that people wanted me to stand there to kiss her in the casket. I remember sitting in the church for the funeral and sniffling and a family member leaning over with a kleenex telling me it was okay to cry and this I remember quite clearly, I felt guilty that I wasn’t crying and that I apparently was supposed to be.

That was not my first funeral, just the first I remember, and it wouldn’t be my last. Between my grandma and grandpa there were 11 siblings, all married with children. That was a lot of great aunts and uncles. My grandpa, my kids great-grandpa, was the last one of those siblings and spouses. At 92 years old, six years after he had a pretty devastating stroke, he joined the rest of his siblings, his wife, and his loved ones in his eternal resting place.

I’m sure it’s weird to others to find comfort at the funeral home, but I do. It’s been 30 years since my conscious memories of stepping through their double doors and seemingly the only change has been the addition of monitors in the viewing rooms. Tucked on a  table in the corner they stand so families can show slide shows of their loved ones, replacing the easels that once held posters boards full of photos. Walking into the home this past week was like walking back into a grandparents formal living room, everything just as it should be, exactly the same as it was before and will be forever.

There is comfort in a place that hasn’t changed in 30 years.

Death is not the easiest thing to explain to small children. I can’t even imagine how families that don’t have a faith based explanation to fall back on do it. We prepared my son and oldest daughter that their time was limited with their great-grandpa. Back in November we thought he wouldn’t make it to Christmas, but he did. So many extra moments that we will hang on to and cherish. He had been in hospice for the last few weeks and we were told last week on Sunday that the hospice nurse was giving us days. It was time to say our goodbyes.

The final goodbye to a loved one when you know the end is near is both a relief and a heart wrenching moment. When you throw in young children to the mix, the situation becomes a more complicated soup of emotion. We didn’t want to scare them because death is a natural progression and he had lived a long and blessed life. We wanted them to remember the great grandpa they knew, not see him half conscious. Most importantly, we wanted them to feel comforted and in control of what they did and didn’t do. At seven and nine,  I knew from my own experience that these would be formative memories that were going to stay with them.

In the end. I only took my oldest and youngest with me to say goodbye. The youngest only because he is clingy and needs mommy. It was the hardest, most heart wrenching thing I have ever done. As sad as I may have been, seeing my child sad, confused and brokenhearted made everything hurt my heart deeper. We said goodbye, he played piano for him, something they both loved doing and grandpa actually responded. His fingers tapped along to the music, he grunted, and when my son came to his side, he raised his arm. As hard as it was, I am so glad we went and so glad he got that experience, that chance.

Funerals can be hard to navigate as adults and they are down right confusing to small children. To help them get through it we told them over and over again that they only had to do what they wanted to do, they had the power to say “No, thank you.” I feel much of the stress that I (really anyone) feel at large family gatherings and funerals comes from trying to manage the expectations of others and I didn’t want my children to feel they needed to do or feel any particular way. Maybe people wanted to see them more front and center, maybe people were disappointed that myself and my family didn’t hold vigil the whole evening of the wake. What has taken me 30 years to learn is the same lesson I am trying to pass down to my children: You have the power say no, you have the power to not answer a question, and you can love, and mourn, and feel, and hope in whatever way you want. No one can tell you how you feel.

While our hearts are heavy this week and we are sad at our loss, I am hoping that we have made it an experience that will reinforce our values of love in our children. I’m hoping that they will cling to the good memories that they have and they will remember the end as a time where they got to say goodbye in their own way.

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