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He wasn’t there

January 14, 2008

We took my daughter to the cemetery where my older brother, who died as an infant, is buried. We took her there on my older brother’s birthday and she watched as my mom placed a tiny handmade boxwood wreath on the gravestone. My daughter thought that someone tangible would be there to meet us. She thought since it was his birthday, he would be there to accept our good wishes, accept our tiny gift and celebrate with us. We avoided her questions because we didn’t want her to see us cry. A freight train passed by and distracted her. The four of us turned and watched as hundreds of freight cars noisily went by on the railroad behind the church. We pointed and talked about the train instead of the reason we were in the cemetery.

. . .

small gravestone

. . .

(This photo is of the back side of the actual gravestone, for anonymity.)

I put my daughter in her car seat and she asked why he wasn’t there. I told her that he was there, but that it was too complicated for me to explain to her then. She was so tired that she soon fell asleep and I had a fifty minute drive home to think about what I had done. I had exposed my daughter to the concept of death by taking her to the cemetery. How many times had we driven past it and she had not noticed? Now she was going to notice every cemetery and begin to process the concept of death.

It has been six months. Listed below is some of what my daughter has said about cemeteries and about her grandparents’ baby. I am letting her lead the discussion. I don’t bring it up, but she brings it up almost every time we drive by that cemetery. I am sometimes amazed at how insightful she is and how deeply she is affected when she realizes that someone she loves is sad.

Why wasn’t he there? Where is he?
Why did we celebrate his birthday without him?
Why did he turn into a rock?
Babies don’t die! Why did Grandma and Granddad’s baby die?
Grandma and Granddad sure are sad that their baby died.
Why did his body stop working?
People die when their bodies stop working.
When my body stops working I’m going to die.
I wish I could have met Grandma and Granddad’s baby. I bet he was really cute.
He died before I was born. Did you get to meet him? He died before you were born, Mom.
It’s good that Grandma and Granddad got to meet him.
There’s the place for the people who turn into rocks.
Can we go there again?
People put flowers there because they miss people that die.
That’s where Grandma put that wreath for her baby.
I thought he was going to be there. He wasn’t there.

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19 Comments
  1. January 14, 2008 3:47 pm

    Wow.

    These situations are tough i think because they are tough for us to understand. Death is a concept young children don’t really get the experts are fond of saying, but i don’t think we get much of it either. And having to talk of it brings our own fears, questions and sadness regarding death to the fore. Also, children ask so many thoughtful questions, most of which we cannot answer.

    i think it is good that you are open to her questions. My younger daughter made my brain and heart melt away with all she asked when my aunt passed away. i just went blank thinking about what she asked. Of course, and pitifully so, i have no problems with telling folks i don’t know stuff, even if it’s important.

    C: Why are we even born then if we’re just gonna die?
    me: ….
    ….
    i dunno, babygirl. But i am glad to be alive.
    C. Oh me, too even though it doesn’t make any sense.

    eee.

  2. January 14, 2008 4:32 pm

    You told a really tough story beautifully.

  3. January 14, 2008 9:49 pm

    What a moving post! Your daughter sounds like an exceptional little girl, and her questions are precious in their sincerity and simplicity.

  4. January 14, 2008 10:44 pm

    I don’t have any children so my input should be weighted accordingly, but I think parents should be honest with children about the cycle of life. To pretend that our loved ones are living in the sky or still with us in spirit to protect them from the inevitability of death does children a disservice.

    If I had a child I would explain, in terms relevant to their ability to understand, that we have a limited time on this Earth and we have to make the best of that opportunity. I do not mean that our loved departed family members should not be celebrated, but I think there is a danger in avoiding the reality of death. They will find out the truth eventually, and protecting them from these harsh realities only prolongs their confusion.

    I hope I do not come off as harsh or unsympathetic to the loss of your family member.

  5. January 15, 2008 7:40 am

    christine, your daughter’s question would have left me speechless too! I thought it was really brave of my daughter to assert that at least my parents got to meet the baby before he died. She seemed really sure of herself when she said it, which made me feel good about her outlook on life. Thanks for sharing the story of your family’s way of dealing with your aunt’s death. It helps to know that other moms are facing the same difficulties in explaining our world to our children.

    Arjewtino, thanks for visiting my blog and for your comment.

    Brian, thank you.

  6. January 15, 2008 2:41 pm

    JP, I agree with you. I don’t think that he is in the sky or with us in spirit. I was totally honest with my daughter once I felt like the suspense of not fully understanding had built up enough and I told her his body was in the ground. I just didn’t want to tell her on the very first day because I thought it would be too shocking and just rock her world too much.

    When she told me that she thought the people had turned into gravestones, I knew it was time to tell her more about burials and rituals in the cemetery. I told her the wreath was not actually for him, but was a symbol of how much Grandma and Granddad loved him and it was comforting to them. So your comment does not come off as harsh or unsympathetic. πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

  7. January 16, 2008 10:00 am

    Your daughter is very sweet. I think she asked a lot of great questions.

  8. January 16, 2008 10:22 am

    Wonderful. This is a very difficult issue and most people just duck it. I hope you can find the right rate and way to present it to your daughter. Don’t want to overwhelm her, but don’t want to befuddle her with ignorance. Looks like you are off to a good start.

    My parents tried to hide funerals and such from us until we were teens… I was very frustrated with the lack of participation and information.

    I liked the ‘people turning into rocks’ bit. I hope I don’t become a rock anytime soon. Kids really do say the darndest things. It is interesting to see the progression of her thought process as she gets her questions answered.

    Her feelings about the goodness of your parents getting to meet your brother remind me of the ichigo ichie (δΈ€ζœŸδΈ€δΌš) concept. Samurai would gather in small, close knit groups to share tea ceremony before heading to battle. They knew that they may not see these “brothers” ever again, so they concentrated at that moment on the joy of that moment together. Each chance to meet another is a gift which should be appreciated fully, as if it will never come again. Ichigo is the period between birth and death; ichie is one meeting. (Once in a lifetime meeting)

  9. January 16, 2008 11:39 am

    What a lovely post. It’s clear from your daughter’s comments that you did a good job explaining things in a way that she could understand. Like you, I’m touched that she made the point that it was good that her grandparents got to meet their baby. And as a (former) geologist, I love the idea that people turn in to rocks, even if it isn’t completely true, it gets at the idea of cycles of nature.

  10. January 17, 2008 1:16 am

    These are some profound thoughts and words.

  11. January 17, 2008 8:46 am

    PPPJ, thanks!

    Bikkuri, I am surprised to learn that your parents didn’t talk about death with you all until your teenage years! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you about ichigo ichie. I think that is exactly what my daughter meant. Thanks for explaining it so well.

    Ann, a geologist . . . So that explains the rock hammer for scale photos! Wow. It’s so neat to read everyone’s perspectives. Thanks for your comment!

    Kitty, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting. πŸ™‚

  12. January 18, 2008 3:54 am

    Death was mentioned before we reached our teen years, but we didn’t really “talk” about it. We weren’t allowed at family/friend funerals, which made things a little mysterious. I was a little disturbed as a teen when my grandfather’s third wife requested me as a pall-bearer for her funeral. It was an open casket and, having little funeral experience, I didn’t know how to handle that. I don’t think I was emotionally scarred by the way things were handled, but I remember being frustrated at an early age. After all, it is all part of the circle of life.

  13. January 22, 2008 9:25 pm

    Not only is your daughter beautiful, she is VERY smart! Thanks for sharing a difficult story so well.

  14. January 26, 2008 8:57 am

    Bikkuri, that would be hard to know how to handle your role in the funeral. I think it’s fine for parents to keep things a little mysterious, because we don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think we should withhold parts of the cycle of life to the point of it being disturbing and frustrating. Thanks for your insight. I’ll try to keep that in mind as I navigate informing my children. πŸ™‚

    CanvasGrey, thank you. I needed to get this written down because I want my daughter to remember her thought process. It helps to share with others as well and get some sort of assurance that we are doing okay. I appreciate your support.

  15. May 16, 2008 10:40 am

    I read this post yesterday but didn’t really know how to respond. I think it made me feel too much and I wasn’t sure how to articulate it.

    I think I felt some sadness at realizing once again that time is precious with our loved ones. And I feel so much pain for anyone that has lost a child. I can’t imagine going on with my life after such a devastating loss and if I spend anytime thinking about it, I inevitably end up crying. Like now… ugh. Dan lost his brother 12 years ago and I admire how his family worked thru their grief and became even closer after Jeff’s death. I don’t think I have the strength and I pray daily that I’ll never be tested in that way.

    Funerals and death make me extremely uncomfortable anyways. I’m sure it has something to do with recognizing my own mortality or something like that but I really hate going to them. I have friends that despise going to hospitals and I think it’s the same feeling. Not quite a fear but a huge dislike. Not that anyone enjoys them but you know what I mean.

    I do think it’s great that are teaching your daughter about the circle of life in age appropriate ways. Part of my problem I think is that my parent’s never talked to us about it and it was always this ‘thing’ that we heard about. I don’t know. I think you handled it beautifully and did a great job writing about it. I truly felt a lot whlie reading and rereading this.

    Emma is just beginning to talk about death and dead animals. She has just started to understand Dan hunting and the food we eat. I’m glad that she feels comfortable talking to us about it and asking questions so she isn’t just making crazy ideas up in her head. Thats what I did as a kid and it didn’t work out so good.

  16. May 16, 2008 1:19 pm

    Chris, thanks for taking the time to respond. I know what a difficult topic this is. If you were ever tested in this way you would have the strength. I love the story that Goldie retells of the train ticket. If God asks you to get on a train, surely he will give you the ticket. Which is so weird because the story of me and my family in the cemetery has a train in it. *cue creepy music*

    http://lifeasaplatypus.wordpress.com/2008/05/15/the-train-ticket/

    I hope you can find a way to talk to your children about the circle of life.

  17. May 17, 2008 1:58 pm

    I am really glad you appreciated my post. I think that many of us can look back at diffcult moments in our life and think “Wow, it is amazing that I found the strength to deal with that!” The human spirit is an incredible thing.

    When I read YOUR post I was moved, and them my 3-yr-old son did something REALLY adorable and his face crumpled up into the most amazing grin and I just had to pull him into my arms and squeeze him oh-so-tight and cry a little. He pulled back and said, “Is there water in your eyes?” and then gave me a very concerned kiss on the lips. I cried even more so he kissed me AGAIN. and again. I wish I could bottle up those kisses and save them for when I am a lonely old woman.

  18. May 17, 2008 3:16 pm

    as far as the death and children issue, I was exposed to the reality of death from a very young age because when I was six my divorced mother started dating a man who worked in a funeral home. They later married and he later bought the company. Many Saturday nights were spent bringing him dinner at work and watching TV together in the lounge (Disco Fever with Denny Terio was our show of choice). Some of my friends thought it was gross, scary, horrible, I just thought it was a fact of life. Later when I lost family members I felt completely comfortable at all the events because I had already come to grips with the issue of death. And no, I was not scarred for life by being exposed to all that so young and am not some creepy socially maladjusted undertaker’s daughter.

  19. May 19, 2008 10:51 am

    I love those moments with my children too, Goldie. Thanks for sharing your point of view and experiences. I’m lucky to count you as a friend.

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