On living, dying and grandchildren

My youngest grandchildren just went to their first funeral, and I suspect they’re all the better for the experience. They are 6 and 4. (I hear intake of breath from readers.) They had been separated from their mother for a long week as she attended the decline and death of her own mother hundreds of miles distant, and now she wanted the family together. As might be imagined, extensive discussions surrounded all aspects of this: family members told their father Oh, You Can’t Possibly Take Them!; friends said, “Heavens, you’ll scar them forever;” casual acquaintances had expert advice. I don’t know any of this for a fact; I’m on another coast and only offered my own opinion when asked. but my own opinion is this: death is a part of the human experience, a perfectly natural thing to happen even if (and often when) we’d prefer it didn’t, and children are good at facing reality if adults around them will refrain from freaking out. My grandchildren were counselled by their parents and their questions, I’m told, leaned mostly toward “OK if we go play with the cousins now?” There are some touching examples of children handling their own or others’ deaths in my book Dying Unafraid, which you’re invited to read about or buy through the links lurking around this blog, but I will mention just one: an early patient of my hospice volunteer work who was a beloved grandmother of many. Children ages two and up clambered constantly atop her bed, talked to her as she lay comatose and dying, and discussed at the wake how she “looked prettier than when she was so sick.” Years later it remained clear that what they remembered was how lovingly everyone saw Grandmother through her final days; there were no spooky memories of an unmentionable event. I am neither a professional nor an expert in this (or any other) area. I’m just a writer who took to hospice work and later work with AIDS support groups and other end-of-life causes. But I do know that for centuries millions of people died with their loved ones (and often unloved ones who were just hanging around for other reasons) in the immediate vicinity, and humankind seems to have survived. My brilliant psychologist friend Marilyn gladdened my heart by agreeing with the advice I’d given pre-funeral about the grandchildren in the case above. I had simply said, “Why not just do exactly what their mother wants? She’s had a hard time. They can handle it.” It is seldom the single jarring episode that scars a child, Marilyn says, but the thing that happens over and over. Better, she says, to visit a visitation room once or twice than to listen to your parents arguing every day. I say, death happens and we live with it. If we talk about it openly and lovingly, those who are just beginning the journey might be equipped to see that journey fearlessly to its completion.

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