Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Is Death?

It’s been an emotional week at my house. My grandfather passed away after a 60+ day hospital stay, pnemonia, and the flu. It was an exhausting struggle for my Step-mom and her sisters as they took turns staying with him at the hospital all those hours.

My Grandfather was a giant, but he was kind. He was funny and always loved to be around people. We were his step-grandchildren, but as soon as we joined the family you wouldn’t have know he just met us. He welcomed my sisters and me into his already large family and took his place as Grandpa.

When it came time to make the funeral arrangements I was hesitant about bringing my sons; it was going to be a full Catholic mass in a church. My children have never been to church. They aren’t used to sitting still for more than 24 minutes (if they’d even sit still the entire episode of Octonauts) and they are hardly quiet for any length of time. They even talk in their sleep! And the thought of taking them to the wake was even more scary or painful, or so I thought. Seeing a very large man, whom they kind of knew in a casket could be the worst decision I could make for a while.

I thought about it for a few days, and then decided that they were coming with me. I didn’t want to stay home just because my kids haven’t experienced death yet. I wanted to be there for my Step-mom, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, my sisters and for myself. I wanted to honor my grandpa.

When my Dad’s mother (My Munga) passed away while I was in college, I was fortunate enough to make it home in time to say goodbye. She waited until everyone had a chance to return to Michigan, say their last “I love you” and she passed away at my Uncle’s home. We were all there. It was nice to just sit and wait and talk about all of the memories we had of her. It was comforting to cry and have others to lean on and to have time to be in pain and time to heal. I needed that with my Grandpa too.

The day of the viewing I got my boys all dressed up, took pictures of them because, boy, were they handsome, and told them that we were going to a funeral for Grandpa. I let them know that everyone will be sad and some people will probably cry. I told them that Pal and Gam (my dad and step-mom) would be crying and so would I. They had very concerned looks on their faces, but I reminded them that it was okay to cry and it’s okay to be sad (we talk about feelings a lot. It really has eliminated a lot of tantrums and fights in our house). 

I left it at that until we were about to walk into the funeral home.  As the family started to flow in, people hugged, the boys were overwhelmed and I wasn’t sure what to expect next. When we were escorted into the room to view my Grandpa, we stayed towards the back. The room was quiet except for sniffles and soft comforting whispers. The boys were nervous. I held Henrik and my sister held Theodor. We held them tight as people returned from the casket with tears in their eyes. The boys didn’t know what was going on but started to get uncomfortable when they saw Pal and Gam crying. 

Henrik asked why they were sad and again, I let him know that Grandpa passed away and we missed him. Henrik was comforted by hugs from his grandparents as my sister and I went to see my Grandpa. We came back with tears in our eyes and on our face and Henrik came up to both of us and gave us a giant but sweet and tender hug. “It’s okay Momma” he said. Theo grabbed onto my neck and gave me a slobbery open mouth kiss.

I set up a corner in the back of the room for the boys to play and sit with their older cousins but as the people trickled in and the boys got more comfortable, they wandered up to the casket. Theodor did it first. He marched right up to the casket, climbed up on the pew, stood on his tip-toes and looked at my Grandpa. I slowly followed him up there. I said nothing. I waited for him. He pointed and asked who that was. I told him it was Grandpa. He just looked for a minute and got back down. 

Then Hank came over. He said he wanted to look too. “Sure” I told him. I said nothing and waited for him to take the lead. “What’s he doing?” he asked.

I didn’t want to be too graphic or scary, so I decided vague but truthful was the best route, so in a calm and comforting, but grown up tone, I addressed death with my two year old, “He’s just laying there.”


I wasn’t sure I wanted to use the word dead to a two year old: “Because, he’s not alive any more.”


I didn’t want to say he was sick because that could lead to a host of other issues since my boys had just gotten well and commonly use the phrase ‘We’re sick’.

“He got very old.”

“Why’s he wearing a watch?”

“Because he always wears a watch. You always play with cars and he always wore a watch.”

“Is this his bed?”

Seriously? A BED!? I have a hard enough time getting my son to sleep in his own bed! How am I going to dodge this one but still be informative? “No. It’s called a casket. It’s a special place for him to lay.”

“Is he sleeping?”

“No honey, he’s not alive. His body is just laying here.”

“But, why does he have a pillow if he’s not sleeping?”

Good question. Damn. “Well, I like having a pillow when I lay down. I think he likes having a pillow too.”

Henrik leaned in towards my grandpa and whispered something I didn’t quite hear, looked at me and walked away.

I have to admit, there was a huge sigh of relief when he left. I was proud of my answers and felt I did it right, but wow was that stressful. Then I remembered that he whispered something. What did he whisper? Did he know something about the after life I didn’t? Did he have kind words for my grandpa?

Before I could get up from the pew, Theodor waddled back over to the casket, climbed right back up on the pew and stuck his face over the edge of the casket. He smiled at me with big bright eyes and said something very softly, looked at me again, flashed a smile, climbed back down and ran through the parlor. The boys never came back to the casket.

Why did both of my boys whisper something to my grandfather? What is the truth about death? There was something so special and so comforting in knowing that they whispered and perhaps said their final respects or delivered some kind of message to him.

On the way home that night Henrik was awake the whole time. I gave him a lot of praise for his good behavior and thanked him for coming with me. He asked a few more questions about the day and was a bit more chatty than before as if he had a lot of time to prep the questions,

“Why is he not alive?”

“Well, he was really old. Way older than you and way older than me.”

“But why is he not alive anymore?”

“Sometimes our bodies can stay strong any more.”

“Was he sick?”

“Actually, yes. He got sick and couldn’t get better.”


“Because he was very old and fragile.”

“Why’d he not have medicine?”

“Well, they gave him medicine, but it couldn’t make him better.”

He’d asked the question I didn’t want to answer, I didn’t want to use sickness and medicine to talk to Henrik but I guess it was time. My fear was that he’d hear that his brother was taking medicine for his incoming teeth and Henrik would freak out. Or that he’d hear that his Mimi was sick from her cancer and think she’d end up in a box bed. I honestly wasn’t sure where this was going to go so I stopped talking and tried to stop over thinking it. Let him lead. LET HIM LEAD I kept saying to myself.

“I have boy medicine.”

“Yes, you and Theo get boy medicine when you are sick. But it’s not the same kind as Grandpa. He was an old man and had different kinds of medicines.”

“I don’t want man medicine.”

Uhhh, did he make the connection between grandpa being a man, and he got man medicine that didn’t make him better and then died? I guess I’ll never know. I was thrilled when he started talking about the stars and how they were like the lights in the midnight zone of the ocean from all of the glowing fish. But then if he could make that connection, could he do the other?

You see, my husband and I aren’t religious. We’ve vowed that if our children asked about churches or religion we’d take them to as many different churches to experience all the religions that they want to know about. We swear we will teach them about how it’s okay to have different thoughts than other people. But death is one of those things that is easily comforted by religion.

My husband doesn’t believe that there’s an afterlife. And I’m more on the spiritual side of things, and I really like the idea of a place in the afterlife where we can all gather together and be with our loved ones. I’m not sure it exists. I don’t want to say, “He’s with God now” because I don’t belive in a GOD. I believe in a force, I believe in fate and I don’t know how to explain that to my almost three-year-old son. Plus, I want them to make their own decisions about what happens after death by themselves. I want them to decide if there is one God, or many gods or no gods.

Death is a tricky subject anyway and I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m possibly over thinking all of this. But I’ve learned a few things from my grandpa’s funeral:

1.     My sons are the sweetest children. I will never forget the bear hugs and neck hugs, soft face strokes and sweet kisses from my sons over the whole experience. My children are empathetic and so in tune with those around them. They may not understand death in its entirety, but they understand how to be there for someone else. That’s such a valuable lesson.

2.     Whatever happens in the afterlife, we all take comfort in offering final words, saying a prayer or even giving a kiss to a casket and I’ll never forget and choose to think that my sons had the opportunity to say something to their great-grandfather.

3.     Don’t be afraid to answer questions. How are my children supposed to be comfortable with something that is so obviously uncomfortable to many if I can’t be honest and give them answers that are appropriate? I want my sons to ask the tough questions, it absolutely makes it harder for me and my husband. But I have sons that are curious and want to know more. I want to encourage their imagination and want them to fight to find the truths. 

I wish my grandpa could have known them better. He knew them a little bit, but I know he would have LOVED playing with his great-grandsons and watching them grow up. They would have found one another funny and I know they would have argued over who the best baseball team was. They would have made a great threesome, but at least they got to meet him. That's all I can ask for. 

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