Sunday, June 23, 2013

Death, Grief, and Children

My immediate family has been very lucky to have been spared many losses.  Since I was born almost 30 years ago, we've lost four family members:  my aunt when I was 2, my uncle when I was 15, my great-grandmother when I was 17, and just last week, my grandmother.

I was too young to remember my aunt.  My mom tells me stories about what happened when she got sick.  She was only 23 when she passed, and no one really expected it.  My mom whisked me across the country just in time to see her before she died.

My uncle died in a motorcycle accident.  Rather than having me attend the services, my parents had me and my younger brother stay with family friends.  They were too distraught to think through the appropriate age and manner for approaching death and grief.

I was in Oklahoma visiting a friend for three weeks when my great-grandmother died.  I missed all of the services because I couldn't fly home.  We knew that she would be passing soon, so I said my goodbyes before I left for my trip.

Those were the family members I was close with.  There were cousins of my parents, my father's uncle, and others that passed.  My parents (one, the other, or both) attended, but it was never even insinuated that we should go.

Though I had no experience with death in my family, I had horrendous experiences with death in American culture.  Ever since I was a child, I saw graphic depictions of death on television.  I learned about the physical processes of death in science class.  I knew exactly what would happen once I died - physically, not spiritually - and it terrified me.  And while I understood that death was permanent, I still feared the "supernatural" death experiences present movies and television:  people rising out of cemeteries, ghosts, and the like.

When I asked my mom the other day why she never took me to funerals, she said she didn't want to disturb me.  I think I was far more disturbed by what I experienced outside of a loving family than what I experienced with my grandmother's funeral.

I still have serious issues with death and dying.  While I was there when she passed, I couldn't bring myself to touch my grandmother immediately after she died.  I attended both viewings, but I never got within 15 feet of the open casket.  I could see her from where I was, and I did my duty as a granddaughter by attending.  At her funeral, I stood next to the closed casket, but I never touched it.  At the interment, I was obsessively careful to walk between graves so as not to step over anyone.

But the events that kept me up at night for years were not as traumatic as I expected.  When Miss F was nursing at night, I would wake up, worried that my grandparents had died, dreading what would happen next.  I am obviously grieving.  But I'm no longer up at night, dreading that moment.

This week has taught me how to better handle death when it comes to my children.  Miss F attended one of the viewings and the funeral.  It is better than she learns about death and grief from family in a loving and compassionate manner than to learn as I did.  It won't be a perfect lesson, but I hope to spare her the anxiety that has been saddled on me for so long.

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