“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” –Erik H. Erikson
This past week, my good friend sent me the following conversation she had with her children in the car on the way to school:
Girl Child: How was GG (great grandmother) buried in two places?
Boy Child: Did they cut her body in half?
Girl Child: Did they bury her in one place for a little while, then dig her body up and move it?
This was a day after her daughter was questioning how to buy a headstone and asking her mother what kind she would want. If only all children were so considerate. Don’t worry, she was just being her sweet self…I hope.
Incidentally, she told me this story the day after my own children had their first experience trolling a cemetery with a bazillion questions of their own.
As I watched my children run freely with their closest friends through the cemetery, checking out the various tombstones and monuments, intrigued by the names and relationships, I realized that their experience at that moment was very different than my own. Although we were there for the same reason, to commemorate an anniversary of my best friend’s husband’s death, we all had our own perspectives of our surroundings.
For my friend, it was an experience to support her children and honor their father who left too soon, and yet see how much their lives had changed since his passing. For her children, it was a time to “visit” and think about their dad and the family buried around him, yet a time to explore with their friends and investigate the relationships of people they’ve never met. For me, it brought back memories of pain of watching my closest friend bury her husband and yet, a time to enjoy the new memories being created with our children. And for my children, it was an experience of wonder and gaining an understanding of the cultural rituals of death and seeing where some people’s bodies go when they die.
Each of our perspectives is created by our experiences and the feelings that we attach to them. I began our visit to the cemetery with a heaviness. I felt sad for the loss of life that touched so many, but especially for the children. Yet, after watching the children enjoy themselves so much and having to coerce them to leave, my perspective shifted into one of content, knowing that life moves on and joy can rise through pain, and new experiences can overshadow the ones we’d rather leave behind.
So when the questions came on how can you be buried in two places at once (kids are so smart), it didn’t feel so heavy to address cremation. I’ve always explained to my children that cremation is the burning of the body (which of course freaked them out a bit) but since our spirit has left the body, we feel no pain and we become ashes like the natural dirt of the Earth. Some people prefer the idea of cremation and others would rather their body be buried in the ground. It’s all part of the cycle and the cultural process of the beginning of Walking Through Grief for many. But more so, it’s a basic reality to the question of what happens to a body when it dies?
We tend to view the finality of life with our own perception of death. For so many, that view is filled with fear, trepidation, or impending grief. Yet children are just learning this reality through our eyes. The more we push our negative perspectives of the pain of our losses on to our children, the more they will view death and loss as a negative. It’s all in how we present it to them and how we show the impact on us.
Remembering that they rely on us to model how to feel and act is a hefty responsibility. When left with task of answering sensitive questions and feeling like our answers will shape the way they view the world, it’s understandable when our hesitation rises and we want to take our time to answer in a way that benefits them. It’s okay to baby step and choose our words with care. And it’s more than okay (in my opinion) to use humor whenever possible to keep the lightness in tact.
I will never forget scattering my grandfather’s ashes and realizing I had dropped some on my foot. I shared with my grandmother that I had Grandpop on my shoe and she responded, “Oh, that will make him very happy! He loves to travel.”
And that my friends, is how it’s done.