As we sat around the dinner table that evening, Addie asked, "Is Beth just sad today?" My dear friend and colleague's husband died right after Easter after fighting cancer for about five months. The memorial service had been that morning, at which I presided. While I was making my way down the aisle saying the opening sentences, "I am the resurrection an the life says the Lord..." this very small creature kept trying to grab my attention. Except for this need to be seen by me at the entrance and the dismissal, I wouldn't have known that Addie and Eli were there. I did hear, however, that after my rector finished his homily Addie said rather loudly, "Wow, Daddy, that was a long one." The service included four beautiful anthems and over 300 people, many of whom were clergy from the diocese, so it was a long liturgy--about an hour and a half. I know this was the first funeral my kids have attended in the Episcopal Church.
Hence, the litany of dinner questions. We explained that Beth had been sad on and off for a while and still would be because her best friend, her husband, had died. They both seemed to understand that, but then Addie wanted to know where Bill's body was. At this point, I got a little nervous. There was not a coffin, but only an urn, which was covered with a pall. We gently explained that Bill's body was like ashes or dirt now. (Luckily, the kids did not ask how that happens because I don't have a good way to explain the process of cremation to a four and six year-old.) Adam added that Bill's body was now like the ashes we use on Ash Wednesday and that some day all of us will be ashes again. Then the conversation quickly shifted to who was going to become ashes first.
Addie proudly exclaimed that Mommy will die first because she's the oldest. Then Daddy. And, of course, then Elias, her, and Jed. I know I start to feel a little uncomfortable when my kids anticipate my death, especially because Adelaide has already requested a specific pair of my shoes when I die. But, for the most part, natural conversations connected to life events seem the best way to prepare kids for eventual encounters with death.
Just a week ago, a 38 year-old man died who was in Adam's fraternity. He relayed to me that lots of his friends were terribly undone because they had never been exposed to death before. How amazing, but how true in this day and age. I remember still being shocked at a funeral I attended where the mother of two young children had not told her children about the death of their babysitter and it had been almost 10 days. She still hadn't the courage to do that after consulting with two child psychologists. Yet, in the olden days, children were around when grandma or grandpa died, some bodies were prepared in the home, laid out there, and everyone was included in the process. Compare the babysitter's funeral to the one I helped officiate after that in which the two grandsons sat up front at their grandpa's funeral. Then both boys helped grandma lay his ashes into the ground. Tears and snot streaming from their faces no less, but they were given the honor and respect to help say good-bye to their grandfather. I have had parents say to me, "We're trying not to make a big deal over grandma's death because of the kids--just trying to keep things normal for them" But, I want to say that is a disservice because your kids are going to wonder what is wrong with them that they feel sad and you don't.