Thoughts and memories shared by Heidi Major.
Many people feel challenged when approaching the subject of death; yet children tend to be extremely curious when they discover death. In their world it’s not uncommon to come across dead trees, flowers, birds and insects. While the permanency of death is not yet fully understood, they have questions, concerns and can even offer insight in their own innocent way. During my career as a funeral director I have had the opportunity to witness the power of a child during times of grief and I truly believe that we can learn some very valuable lessons from children.
1. Death Is A Part Of Life
Children acknowledge that death is a part of life. This is much easier for kids, as they don’t fully grasp the concept of death or the gravity of its impact.
On the other hand, as adults, it’s as though, the moment a person takes their last breath, they cease to be someone we love and they simply become “the body”. I would challenge this thinking; there is a reason we bring dead soldiers back from war. There is a reason, that days after the Twin Towers fell, search teams continued to look for bodies, because bodies have significance. There was a time when we bathed our own dead, we dressed them and we spent time with them, now we let a stranger do it, but we may not even go as far as having them bathed or dressed, because we don’t see the point.
Imagine this for a moment…
Your family has gathered for a last goodbye, the room is quiet and peaceful, the nursing staff, who your family has gotten to know over the course of this journey, speak in hushed voices when they ask if you are ready for the funeral director to come, you give the nod that yes, everyone is ready. Your family stays until the person in the black suit shows up.
At this point, the nursing staff ask your family to gather their things and exit the room.
If I am that funeral director, that person in the black suit – I am looking to your family, to show me a sign that you want to stay, that you want to help. If I sense the slightest delay in leaving the room, I would quietly say “I could use some help if anyone would like to stay behind.” I don’t actually need help, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to do these sacred last services on my own for a person I don’t know.
One or two people stay behind and I direct, I explain how to wrap your loved one in a sheet, how to move them, how to lift them, how to place them on the gurney and I leave with your loved one’s body. That may be the last time you see ever them.
It is ok to want to spend time with the body
It is ok, and it is not morbid to want to spend time with the body of a person who has died. It’s ok, to want to be involved in the last services that will ever be done for the person. This is a sacred time and it is ok to want to participate in it. To paint her toe nails one last time, to brush her hair and put it up in a bun, as she always wore it, to shave the whiskers from his face, to kiss a forehead, hold a hand, to laugh and cry and just be. It will make things more difficult, it would be easier not to, but easier isn’t always better, when it comes to the needs of the heart. Death isn’t always pretty but it is apart of life and it’s ok to spend time with someone who is dead.
2. Children Talk
Children talk and they talk and they process and they repeat themselves and they take it in and they talk. Adults don’t talk, because we don’t know what to say, we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, we are afraid we’ll break down in tears or lash out in anger.
3. Children Don’t Overthink
It’s not very often that families request that the casket be lowered in front of them during the graveside service anymore. It’s often very difficult emotionally and we’ve been taught to avoid anything painful if we can.
I remember a time that a family had requested that the casket be lowered in their presence. My co-worker at one end of the casket with myself at the other while the family surrounded the grave. People were sniffing back tears. I observed one little boy, looking up at the sky and down at the grave and up at the sky and down at the grave, very quietly trying to get his mom’s attention……mom, mommy, mom, hey mom, MOM!
“I thought grandma was going to heaven!” he yelled out and everyone started to laugh.
Children don’t over think what they are going to say, they aren’t afraid of being sad and vulnerable and their intention is always genuine and true.
4. Children Aren’t Afraid To Be Vulnerable
When I was nine years old, a neighbourhood girl; Paula was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to see her, I wanted to go to the hospital. My mom on the other hand did not want to go, as an adult now, I can only imagine the things that made her anxious about the situation. Paula’s family was from Chile, so there maybe cultural considerations, a child with cancer is a sad thing, what would she say.
At nine years old, I didn’t think of any of these things. Over the next few months, I would go to the hospital on weekends to visit Paula. I would wake up early enough to get a ride with her mother or step-father and I would stay until late at night. Paula and I would sneak wheelchairs out of a storage room and race down the halls, she’d find me an IV pole and we’d use them as scooters, we’d sneak down to the basement kitchen and make peanut butter and jam sandwiches and we could do all of this, Paula assured me, without getting into trouble because she was dying.
Nobody told Paula she was dying, not her parents or her doctors, nobody! Nobody would talk to Paula about her mortality. So as a young girl, she was left to her own imagination about what death meant.
We would talk and talk, wondering what heaven was like, would she get a new bike, was God mean, would she miss people on earth, could she be a ghost. I knew my friend was dying and I was curious about that and I was scared.
The weekend Paula died, my mom didn’t let me go to the hospital, instead I had a sleepover weekend with another friend, that Sunday, when her parents picked her up, they stayed for supper. It was during supper that a neighbour knocked on the door and let mom know that Paula had died.
I didn’t hear the words, but I knew and I was mad. I was mad that my mom made me play with another friend all weekend, instead of being with Paula, I was mad that mom didn’t let me hear the neighbour say it. I remember thinking I should be sad, but I wasn’t, I was mad. My father sent me a handwritten note, with $20 to give to Paula’s mom, this seemed strange to me. I didn’t understand what the money was for. My communication with my dad was limited, I still have the handwritten note.
Paula died during the bitter cold month of January. I still remember the dress I wore to her funeral and how my mom made me take a pair of sweat pants to wear underneath because it was cold. Paula’s casket was open at the back of the church, her mom off to the side, crying, we stopped to look at Paula, I was curious, my mom broke down crying (the first time I saw my mom cry) Paula looked good, but she looked different. I wanted to look more, I wanted to touch her but mom pulled me away.
I would see Paula’s mom around the townhouse complex, but I felt weird about her. I was afraid that seeing me, made her sad. I started to avoid Paula’s mom, and then they ended up moving back to Chile.
Over the years, I’ve stopped by Paula’s grave to pay my respects. As a funeral director, when I would find myself in the cemetery where she was laid to rest, I would wander over to clear her headstone before going back to work.
If we could only learn to talk…
Paula was a little girl and she was dying and nobody would talk to her about death and after Paula died, nobody wanted to talk to me about Paula. That always struck me as strange. Paula was born to this earth, she lived, she loved and she is dead and we shouldn’t be afraid to speak her name.
The bottom line is: it’s time to acknowledge that death is a part of life. It’s time to admit that we need to talk about death, talk during death and most definitely talk after a death.
Recalling and sharing happy memories helps heal grief and activate positive feelings.
As we get older, we tend to not want to be seen as weak or pitied, heaven forbid we show our scars and be considered vulnerable. Children recognize that scars aren’t signs of weakness, a scar is a sign of strength and survival. A story to tell. I believe that we can learn so many valuable lessons from children.