Kids and Wakes and Dealing with Death and Grief

Sooner or later, all children will learn about death.  Through the death of a grandparent, a beloved pet, maybe even a bug splatting on the windshield.  For me, I see death everywhere.  That may sound morbid, but it doesn’t feel morbid.  It feels more like life to me.

In our home, death is part of our day-to-day.  I have no doubt that is because of losing our oldest daughter to cancer.  Her death, her absence, has shaped our family profoundly.  That, too, may sound morbid, but it doesn’t feel morbid.  To us, it is simply our life.

We talk about our daughter’s death regularly.  We talk about the sadness her death created for our family, and how that sadness is felt differently for Mom and Dad than for our sons — one of whom was just nine months old when Donna died, and one who arrived a full four years after her death.  Our grief will never be their grief, but our grief surely shapes how our sons will learn about death.

Today will be another lesson in death and grief.  My sister’s mother-in-law died over the weekend and I am packing up the boys to attend the wake. Along the way, we will stop and pick up an uncle, a grandfather, and a great aunt.  This is Catholic style grief, yo.  Complete with a wake and what I assume will include a viewing.

As a child myself, I attended the wakes of a few family members.  My grandmother died when I was just 7.  I don’t remember seeing her in her coffin, but I do remember watching my Dad’s back as he leaned over his mother for a final goodbye.  I remember the tears that poured out of him afterwards — they were shocking, really, as I had never seen my strong, authoritative father cry before.  I remember his words, sobbed through those same tears, to my mother in the front seat of the car, “I’m an orphan now,” and being confused by the idea of a 43 year old orphan.  I remember the hot day in the cemetery at the burial and the grasshopper that jumped from my red calico skirt to my white ruffled blouse.  I remember how I wanted to jump, too, to get that grasshopper off me, but I didn’t.  I remember knowing, understanding, a cemetery wasn’t the place for hopping girls, screaming about bugs.

How did I know that?

My sons will be raised in a much more open and expressive home than I was.  Changing times and changing ways.  We have talked about what my 5 year old will experience today, with special emphasis placed on how we treat death and grief with respect.  A funeral home is not a place to run around with cousins.  There will be time for that later.  We have talked about the difference between when an old person dies and when a young person dies.  My son thinks that 88 is the best age to die, that people are sad for the loss, but they are happy their loved one lived such a full life.

He’s listening, absorbing the lessons we are teaching.

I have no qualms about taking our sons, even the baby, to today’s wake.  My 5 year old can decide whether or not he will view the coffin with the unfamiliar body inside.  He says no now, but I understand that his curiosity might come out.  And I am okay with his curiosity, as long as it is accompanied with a healthy dose of respect for the grieving.

There are two lessons, I think, is bringing my sons to this wake today.  One is about death and life.  That all living things eventually die, and that that death results in sadness that we call grief.  The second lesson is about respecting other’s grief, the simple importance of showing up, and supporting our family members in their sadness.

Already my boy is groaning about the khakis and collared shirt he will be wearing.  Little does he know about the tie I have for him, too, deep in the back of the closet.  We had to take a quick trip to the store yesterday when i realized the only thing they have to wear these days that fit are onesies and athletic shorts.  Part of that aforementioned respect, especially in honoring someone from the WWII generation, is to dress with respect, too.

From a brief discussion on Facebook yesterday, I know that not all parents agree with my  choice to bring the kiddos out to a wake of a distant family member.  I know that there are many parents that would find taking a child or baby to a wake as disrespectful in and of itself.  It will be challenging, to be sure.  Rest assured, if there is wailing today, it won’t be from my two little ones.  If so, we will remove ourselves promptly.

We believe strongly that the lessons we teach our sons about death and grieving as children will shape their experience with these two inevitabilities of life as they grown older.  There is no protecting our boys from the reality of death.  That is simply not an option for our family. Instead, we embrace these things as opportunities to feel, to express, to support.  My goal is to do as I want my sons to learn.  Pay my respects, give hugs and support to the grieving, and honor a full life well lived.  I see doing that with my children as an opportunity to teach and learn how death and grief and practicing empathy are part of life.


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