Living and dying
Living and dying: a father’s reflections
As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette
Death offers lessons about life. The learning is rich, meaning-filled and painful. So we have been experiencing after the abrupt death of Mac, my wife Lori’s beloved aunt, and grandmotherly presence to our 4-year-old Adam and 7-year-old Zoe.
Upon hearing of Mac’s death, I began ruminating about how we would involve Zoe and Adam in the events to follow, respond to their many questions, and help them learn about one of life’s most uncomfortable truths.
I struggled with these same concerns two years ago — when Great Grandmother Marion died. Then, and now, I realize the extent to which I attempt to shield our kids from death. I frequently discuss the cycle of life with Zoe and Adam, through our practices of gardening and composting, and when exploring plants and animals in wild places – but I avoid the topic of human death.
Until now, life has conspired with me in this regard. All four of Zoe and Adam’s grandparents are still alive and well. We have not experienced the death of a close family friend, nor have we closely experienced the death of a child or parent of young children. So Mac’s passing prompted the inevitable, addressing death as a family.
Still, concerned that Adam was too young to attend the funeral and burial, Lori and I decided I would stay home with the kids, bringing them only to the celebration-of-life gathering at Mac’s house.
The morning of the funeral, however, Zoe unleashed a fury of angst, making it clear that she wanted to be included — and that she was hurting. This was understandable as two years ago she attended Marion’s funeral and burial — and because she adored Mac. But including her would mean bringing Adam, too. Ultimately we decided to include both of them.
During our 30-minute drive I prepared the kids for the day, as Lori had left earlier with her parents and brothers to meet other family. I talked about the coffin that was already holding Mac’s body, the funeral that would include listening, praying, and crying, the hearse that would lead us on a special parade to the cemetery, and the burial, where the rabbi would invite us to participate in the Jewish ritual — filling the grave — when each of us will shovel dirt into Mac’s grave.
While I do not embrace a theology that promises life everlasting, I have come to appreciate these rituals, made increasingly familiar by the aging of Lori’s large, extended family. Collectively these practices hold us close while we grieve death and celebrate life, creating a connection that often eludes our daily lives.
They also offer a shared language for talking about death, helping Lori and I respond to Zoe and Adam’s many questions: How will Mac breath in that box? What would happen if they didn’t have a box big enough for Mac? What will happen to Mac’s food? Why did Mac have to die?
So while I have become more comfortable talking with our kids about death, I still avoid talk of my own mortality, fearing the moment when Zoe or Adam will ask, “Are you going to die, Daddy?”
This question terrifies me. It’s not the pain that often accompanies death, regret about choices made along the way, or the end to an incredible journey that pains me. Rather, it is the thought of Adam and Zoe growing up without a father, Lori a single parent, and missing the family I love, which releases my tears.
And this brings the realization that it is me that I have been trying to protect from death. Certainly Zoe and Adam’s fertile minds have already pondered this question — the one I avoid — which leaves me with the uncomfortable truth that my fear has left both of them afraid to talk about death, especially Lori’s and mine.
As the four of us drove home, following an emotionally draining day, and weekend, Lori asked the kids, “What special memory do you have about Mac?”
Zoe spoke of times at the family beach house and Adam recalled a recent afternoon when we all shared pizza and ice cream. Lori reassured them, and us, that we can feel both sad about missing Mac and happy about the special times we shared with her.
Then, before nodding off in his car seat, Adam said, “Mac is everywhere you remember her,” providing yet another example of the profound lessons about life — and death — that fatherhood continues to offer me.