Perfect circle Talking to kids about death is no day at the movies...
y kids, Jenna and Andy, now 27 and and confusing realities—and death is a near 25, were 8 and 7 years old when impossible concept to explain to someone their mother died. Gladys and I had whose views of the world are so fragile. been divorced for a few years when she was O O O O diagnosed with lung cancer and lymHospice By The Bay, with ofﬁces in Marin, phoma. She noticed a lump in her neck on San Francisco, San Mateo and Sonoma Easter Day 1994, and died seven months County, has worked with countless children later, just a few days before Thanksgiving. in various stages of grief. In the booklet It was a difﬁcult time, to say the least. As a weekend father, my role had largely “Children’s Grief,” marriage and family counselor Alissa Hirshﬁeld-Flores been the Fun Guy. Though I was describes the need for simple, de a daily presence in their lives, honest answers to children’s h it was on weekends that they questions about death. Often, q came to stay with me, and I beby b y she writes, adults attempt to ssh came associated with playtime. D David av i d sspare children pain by softenOur weekends together were ing their explanations to the T Templeton empleton full of games, trips to the park, point of meaninglessness. adventures and movies. The When children are not given Lion King, a particular favorite, full explanations, they will was still in theaters, the soundﬁll in the gaps with their own track a constant presence in my imagination, sometimes to car, on the day I got the call that devastating effect. Gladys had passed away. Telling children that their loved one has The kids were with me that day. merely “gone away” opens up immense Recognizing that the end was near, I’d feelings of abandonment. Telling a child brought them to my place for a few days. that his mother or father or grandparent My girlfriend, Susan—we got married a has “gone to sleep” often causes fear of year or so later—was home that morning, bedtime, imagining that he himself might too. Telling my children that their mother never wake up again. Even the comforting had just died is easily the hardest thing suggestion that the loved one was taken I’ve ever had to do in my life. They knew away by God because she was so good he she was sick, but in a clumsy attempt to needed her in Heaven can result in conprotect them, she’d repeatedly promised fused feelings, believing that only in being that, one way or another, she was going to bad will the child be safe from a God that get better. kills good people. It was a promise made of love, and of Experts tend to agree that the best one optimism and hope. can do for children asking about death But it was a big mistake. is to give real comfort, to answer quesI still remember their faces, tears running down their cheeks, their little mouths tions about sickness as honestly as possible, avoiding ambiguous language. Most chewing, chewing, chewing. For some important, children need to know that reason, I decided to give them chocolate everything they are feeling is normal. That trufﬂes as I broke the news. Jenna, the it’s OK to cry. And it’s OK to be happy, too. 8-year-old, couldn’t stop crying. She imIt’s OK to want their loved one to return, mediately ran to tell our cat, Buddy, the and it’s OK to be angry that that isn’t going news. From the bathroom, where Buddy to happen. liked to hang out, I could hear her sobPrimarily, a grieving child needs to feel bing, holding Buddy in her arms. In the loved and protected. living room, Andy, 7, had cried for maybe 30 seconds. That was it. Then he became O O O O angry, his little ﬁsts slowly clenching in In my case, I stumbled through the best I childlike rage. could. “She said she wasn’t going to die! She It was with mixed feelings that I took the promised!” kids to the showing of the body the night The rest of the day was a wild ride of emobefore their mother’s funeral. I didn’t want tions, each new wave punctuated by questhat to be their last memory of her, but tions. “Where is she now? Where will we live? Gladys’s mother was adamant. Since they Why did she die?” had not been given a chance to really say That last one, that was the toughest. goodbye—how could they, when they’d been Death is a mystery to even the most promised she was going to recover?—I gave cognizant and experienced of us. But for them each a blank cassette tape, and encourchildren, especially at their age, the world is aged them to record a message to leave in the still forming, a blend of imaginative fantasy 12 PACIFIC SUN OCTOBER 26 - NOVEMBER 1, 2012
cofﬁn. I still don’t know what they said. Jenna recorded her message in the bathroom with Buddy, behind closed doors. Andy waited till the last minute, while we were eating dinner at a Burger King down the street from the funeral home. There was one of those indoor playgrounds at the restaurant, with a slide and a ball crawl. Andy took the recorder into the little pit of plastic balls, wiggled down under, and said his goodbyes from beneath the covering of brightly colored balls. After the viewing, where the cassettes were gently placed inside the cofﬁn with Gladys’s body, I still felt Andy and Jenna’s questions weighing down on me. I felt a responsibility to try and explain, to make some sense of what was happening—but I couldn’t imagine how. Susan drove my parents back to their hotel, and I seat-belted the kids into my car and headed for home. On the sound system was The Lion King. No one was in the mood to sing “Hakunah Matata,” so I went to turn it off. Then I had an idea. I switched to track number one. “The Circle of Life.” “From the day we arrive on the planet/ And blinking, step into the sun/ There’s more to see than can ever be seen/ More to do than can ever be done.” And then the chorus. “It’s the Circle of Life/ And it moves us all/ Through despair and hope/ Through faith and love/ Till we ﬁnd our place/ On the path unwinding/ In the Circle, the Circle of Life.” We all knew those words by heart. I turned the car around, and headed back. Not to the funeral home, but to the hospital where both of the kids were born.
And tomorrow will be another day.
We stopped for ice cream on the way. “I don’t know why your mom died,” I told Andy and Jenna, as we crossed the parking lot and then stepped into the hospital elevator and hit the button for the third ﬂoor. “But I know that everything has a beginning and an ending, and some endings come earlier than others. But there’s always a new beginning after that. That’s the circle of life.” The elevator opened onto the balcony outside the maternity ward and, ice cream cones still in their hands, I led Jenna and Andy over to the window. Inside were rows and rows of cribs, four of them occupied with newborn babies. “You just saw your mom for that last time, at the funeral place,” I told them, kneeling down between them. “Now I want to show you where you saw her for the ﬁrst time.” Nothing much happened. The babies slept. We peered through the window. We ﬁnished our ice cream. Then we went home. I don’t know that my little improvised ﬁeld trip, or my awkward explanation about circles, beginnings and endings offered any comfort. My children carry the pain of their mother’s death to this day. But strangely, they felt that one of their questions had been answered. Their mother died because sometimes mothers die, and lion kings pass on, and new lions are born to take their place. Death sucks, and sometimes adults don’t give kids a chance to say their goodbyes, and nobody knows what to say when hard questions are asked. But in the circle of life, it’s not bad. It’s not good, either. It’s just what happens. < Email David at firstname.lastname@example.org.