Friday, February 25, 2011

Thoughts on Kids and Death

     I know this is kind of a morbid topic, but I had a conversation this morning with my sister-in-law about her grandfather's funeral. We got into a discussion about kids going to funerals and the appropriate age.  I was 16 years old when my great Grandma Catzman died.  Grandma Catzman was closer to me when I was a child than my grandmothers. She came to visit us in Michigan (she lived in Canada) often when I was growing up. She scrubbed my ears when they were dirty, and even when they weren't; she tried to teach me to knit; she loved watching Lawrence Welk--so we all watched it with her; she always brought us tins of cookies, and she loved me and my sisters and brother.
     Grandma was in her 80's when she she died, and her death and funeral were hard on me, but I made it through and have enjoyed many years of wonderful memories of Grandma Catzman.  In high school I had teacher and a fellow high school student who were killed in a canoeing accident. That was a difficult  funeral to attend, but I remember thinking that I needed to pay my respects rather than stay home and avoid the pain.  Later  in life I had other hard funerals to attend--my father's, my father-in-law's, and all my grandparents. My own children have faced very difficult funerals. Two years ago, a young lady from our church and my kid's high school was killed in a skiing accident. Just over a year ago, my youngest son who had just turned 12, lost a good buddy to tragic circumstances. Our family attended those funerals together, and my husband and I were able to support our kids, and our kids were able to support each other during those difficult services.
     I wouldn't begin to tell anyone at what age they should take their children to a funeral--much of that will need to be determined by the maturity level of the child.  I am glad my 12-year-old was able to attend his friend's funeral. It was one of the hardest funerals I have ever attended, but my husband and I were able to support the family of the boy, and we were able to support Keith. I don't know that anyone every really attains "closure," but a funeral does give one the sense of the end of the death process and beginning of a new reality of life without that person.
     Death is a part of life, and death is inevitable.  Grandparents are going to die. Friends are going to die. As frightening as the prospect may be, parents or siblings may even die.  When our former president George W. Bush was  7 years old, his 3 year-old sister, Robin, was diagnosed with leukemia.  George's parents lived in Midland, Texas at the time, but wanted to get the best health care possible for their little, blond, curly-haired daughter, so they took her to New York City for 6 months. During that time George's father shuttled back and forth from Midland to New York, but other than one short visit home for Robin and Mrs. Bush, the two of them were absent for the 6 month period. Six months after little Robin was diagnosed with cancer, she lost her battle. George W. Bush remembers seeing his parents pull up to the school in the family car. He thought he could see the top of his little sister's head in the back seat, but when he he got into the vehicle his grief-stricken parents broke the news to him that his beloved sister had died. The funeral had already taken place, and she had been buried in Connecticut. In later years, George and Barbara Bush both expressed that they wished they had handled the illness and death of their daughter differently. They wished they had included the their children more. According to Ron Kessler, the author of A Matter of Character (concerning George W. Bush), "Bush was bothered by the fact that, outside their family, no one mentioned Robin and her death. As he would later in life, Bush liked to confront issues."
     As much as we would all like to insulate our kids from the harsh realities of life, when we don't let them confront emotions, we may be stunting their emotional health.  When we challenge our physical bodies by stretching muscles, oftentimes those muscles seem to say to us, "OUCH! You're hurting me."  Now we can take that to mean that we shouldn't exercise anymore or we can realize that if we continue to exercise, the muscles will grow stronger. Our kids can grow stronger spiritually and emotionally if we teach them how to handle their emotions.
     One of the hardest situations that my husband and I have ever had to deal with was the loss of Keith's friend last year.  My heart told me that a 12-year-old shouldn't have to deal with the death of a friend. Reality told me, "You have to deal with it." We cried with Keith. We let Keith talk. We encouraged Keith to talk to his friends at school. The teachers at the school were amazing. They let the kids talk and grieve.  Just a few weeks ago, Keith went with me to pick up some folks for church, as we pulled up to the stop sign, Keith said with tears in his eyes, "I miss __."
     "I know, Keith. Do you think about him a lot?" Keith nodded his head yes while his eyes filled with tears. "What do you miss most about him?" Keith went on to tell me some of the wonderful qualities of his good friend.
     Funerals are hard. Death is hard. Life is hard. God is good. I want to give my kids the opportunity to grow strong. I want to snatch those occasions when life throws the curve balls to teach my kids about Heaven, about life, about death, about eternity. I need them to know that we won't always understand why things happen but that God is always in control, and He loves us no matter what. Being a parent isn't easy, and some times are harder than others, but we need to always use the moments of deep emotion to teach, to love, and to connect to our kids.

1 comment:

  1. We went to a viewing last night with all four of our kids. Ben and Chloe have been through this with my Mom, my Grandparents and then Justus' Dad. They "understand" as much as any of us can. But Isaac, who is 4, asked a lot of questions about the Preacher who had died. He wasn't sad, or scared, just wondering. Death is a part of life. I am so glad I let Ben and Chloe be a part of my Mom's funeral, just as they were a part of her life. They were only 3 and 4, but they do remember it. I agree, maybe not every child can handle that, or should. But death happens, to us all. I remember my Dad sheltering me from funerals and scared me more than anything. I decided that I wouldn't let my children be "frightened" by Nannies body. The real her is in Heaven. Just my 2cents worth. Great post.