We had an exhausting past weekend as we said goodbye to my great-aunt at 87 years old. Combine that with the fact that my husband was out of town for all of that weekend, and I’ve been running on empty for awhile. I thought I was doing ok until I got the text that Wendell was on his way home from the airport. The older two were watching TV, the next two down were asleep, I was putting the baby to sleep, and by the time he got home, I was pretty much out for the night. This doesn’t seem like that interesting of a story, but it was 7:30. Some of you hadn’t even eaten dinner yet. For a girl who struggles to go to sleep before midnight, it was a fairly significant event. I think my brain said, “hey. he’s almost here.” and then shut down. The end. So tired.
I’ve been thinking a lot about our past weekend and the previous few weeks during which we anticipated my aunt’s death. This was the sixth viewing/funeral we’ve been to this past year as a family, and the only one where there were several other children. Apparently it’s not too common to take your kids along to funerals or viewings. I think it’s so important for my kids’ upbringing to be exposed to death and mourning, so I compiled a short list of the things I want to teach my kids about death. I will be the first to admit, however, that my children have been fortunate in that we have not attended the funeral of a child or the funeral of someone who died from violence. Those things will bring up new questions and new problems, and let’s be frank, I don’t have the answers for those things. I can’t tell them why God allows children to die, why violence sometimes seems to win…but I can teach them about death as a part of life. These are everyday lessons I want them to learn.
1) Dying people are not scary.
I watched my four-year-old climb up right beside that hospital bed in the room where my aunt took her last breaths and take her hand like there was nothing to it. She started right in with a one-sided conversation, no fear at all. It was the sweetest little thing, made even more striking by the fact that they didn’t interact like that regularly. I never want my children to fear the elderly or the dying or the vulnerable. Don’t be scared. Just love them.
2) Death is not convenient.
With very rare exceptions, death cannot be predicted. So you change your plans. You skip practices, games, holiday dinners, working on your house, work, school, and even sometimes vacations. (Unless your ticket is non-refundable and the rest of your family can still go. But then you feel bad about it.) You show up. If you know the person who died, but not their family, you still show up. They want to see the people that loved their loved one. If you don’t know the person who died, but you do know their loved ones, you show up. That’s what makes us people. We share one another’s loads. We grieve with one another. Even when we don’t know what to say. We come and we give a hug and we cry together. If you can travel to the location, you do so. Don’t be scared. Just show up.
3) Death is a lot of work.
So you do it. If it’s not your loved one, you do the work. If you’re part of a church, then you move chairs and you set up tables and you ask what else needs to be prepared for the funeral. You make food for the after-funeral dinner, and even more importantly, you serve at the after-funeral dinner. You do this EVERY TIME you possibly can because someday it’s going to be your family member, and someone else will need to do it for you. If you’re not part of a church that does this kind of thing, then you make food for the family. Not just the immediate family, but the ones who don’t live in that house too. They all are tired and overextended with the purchasing of funeral clothes and time off work, and everyone could use a break. Make them dinner. Clean their house. Do something. Don’t be scared. Just step up.
4) Death is not scary.
This one was really brought home to me on the way home from my aunt’s viewing. The kids asked about the body which led to a conversation about embalming which led to burial which led to cremation which led to my older children deciding on their death and funeral wishes and wanting to know mine. It wasn’t icky. It wasn’t weird. It was just a conversation about the natural progression of life. People die. We grieve. We remember them, but we move forward. As they are exposed to death, it will only serve them to be better equipped when someone very close to them dies. I don’t want them to be paralyzed with fear when that inevitably occurs. Don’t be scared. Just keep on.
5) Death is not the end.
The last lesson is the most important one of all. The night we got the call that my aunt had finally passed, my Maggie said, “Do you know that Aunt Esther never learned to drive? When she was getting ready to learn, a pig ran across the road and the car, and then she was too scared to ever try. I bet right now she’s driving a golden car with wings.” Facts of that story are maybe not completely verified, but Maggie understood the point. Aunt Esther still lives. The minute she left this earth, she gets to be present with Jesus. Something deep within my kids’ souls knows this to be true. I’m not sure if it’s just my own indoctrination of our faith beliefs (possible, but I honestly can’t remember us talking about this aspect of death much) or if it’s just this innate part of us as humans that knows that there is more to us than just this earthly life. Eternity is planted in our hearts, and my kids know this to be true. Death is sad. Death is painful. But don’t be scared, sweet children: Love wins.