Recently, we had a sudden death in the family. In the hectic and grieffilleddays that followed.
I packed up both children and joined family in New Brunswick for the terrible and essential business of saying goodbye.
When my daughter was very young, my husband and I had no idea how to deal with the subject of death. Unsure how to even explain the concept, we avoided it entirely, to the extent that we were struggling with our words to describe what exactly had happened to the spiders we dispatched or the hawk we were unfortunate enough to find on our lawn one day, the victim of an encounter with a power line.
My motherinlaw is a psychiatrist, and as soon as she witnessed this, she immediately advised us to stop.
“Little deaths, like bugs, are the perfect way to introduce the idea,” she told me. “You can explain how its body is no longer working, how it won’t breathe or eat or move anymore.” Getting used to the idea on a small scale would lead to dealing with it on a larger scale, and leave room for any personal or religious details we chose to add. Besides, she advised, “you need to make sure she understands what death is now, before it happens to someone she loves.”
I thought about this as I saw my daughter hugging our family members, doing her best to be loving and quiet as the people around her at turns grieved and dealt with necessary details.
When our immediate family was alone back at the hotel, she would act out after the strain of suppressing herself all day, making us frustrated. My son, at not quite three years old, of course had no understanding of the situation. But he contributed emotional support in his own way, by providing a welcome distraction with his chatter, toys, and happy smiles. Together, their youth was a visible reminder that life begins as well as ends.
I’m unsure if telling my daughter about dead bugs truly prepared her for the day our next door neighbour and close friend passed away, but when this first experience with death came by, she understood better than I expected, and asked a lot of questions. This time, her questions about the process were fewer, and she was more concerned about the effect on those left behind. She didn’t cry, and I confess I was surprised at that. Frankly, she seemed more concerned about whether or not she’d get to swim in the hotel pool than the funeral itself, and I worried that she
A couple of weeks later, we were in the car, heading to the mall for a little Saturday shopping.
Out of the blue, she asked me if people’s memories go with them when they die. As I struggled to find the words to answer her, I choked up as I mentioned our deceased loved one. And as soon as she heard his name, she began to cry. She didn’t want to hear his name. Those three syllables had suddenly made it real for her, and I comforted her with no small amount of relief.
She hadn’t lacked empathy she had just needed time to process the loss.
I remember when I was eleven, and my grandfather died. We were in the middle of moving to Nova Scotia from Newfoundland, and it didn’t truly hit me until months later, when I spent an entire night crying for him and looking at the stars through my new bedroom window, wondering if time and distance would ever make it better.
Let me tell you, just as I told my daughter that Saturday: it doesn’t. You learn to go around the grief, like breaking a new path in the snow around the thin spot in the ice, and you go on. But it never goes away. I told her that as long as you remember, the one you loved is never truly gone.
I wish my children didn’t have to learn about it the hard way. I wish I could just tell them about it, and they could believe me without experiencing it. But the times will come when they’ll experience it firsthand, and no one can make that fresh boot mark in the snow but them.
So we help when we can, and we prepare how we can, and in the meantime, you go on. Death is part of life, and as parents we have to attempt to balance the hard lessons with our instinct to protect our children. They’ll find out, one way or another. This lesson is one that should come from love and understanding, and the support only a parent’s strong hug can give.
It starts with spiders, and ends with them knowing that you don’t stop loving and remembering someone, long after they’re gone.
We miss you, Jonathan.
Susan Whistler is a local writer and co-creator of the children's book, "The Great Crow Party." She enjoys her family, walks by the ocean, and perfectly placed apostrophes. She can be found online at www.susanwhistler.com. ‘