Defining death. To a child.

I love words. I love reading and writing and hearing peoples’ stories, and telling them, myself. Anyone who knows me will freely say that I’m not often at a loss for words. I’m finding, though, that as a parent of a nearly three-year-old child,  attempts to describe or define the meaning of words and actions often leave me without the means to accurately convey a concept. To be sure, some of it is developmental; small children are not the most abstract thinkers. But beyond that, there’s a desire to shield him from the ugliness of the world, at least for now, while still making good on my values to raise him in honesty and reality.

As we walked through the cemetery in our neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I thought of my mom, as I often do, and that I should visit her grave. It’s been awhile; I have a hard time ascribing meaning to that space. I asked D if he wanted to visit Grandma Patti’s cemetery, and he said yes. He immediately started chattering as we walked home, about seeing her, bringing her some of the chocolate strawberries his dad had made for me the day before. We talk to him about my mom a lot, show him photos, tell him stories, to help him understand her importance in our lives. It broke my heart to listen to him, knowing that I needed to try to explain the reality of the situation.

We got to her grave, and he smiled, recognizing my mom and dad on the etching in the headstone. “Is Papa Steve coming here, too?” he asked. I told him no. A car pulled up, and he stood, wondering aloud if that was Grandma Patti. He really believed he was going to see her. I took a breath, and asked him to sit with me. I said, “Grandma Patti isn’t with us anymore.”He asked where she was. Knowing that he attends church with his other papa, I tried to use terms that he might have some concept of; “She’s an angel now. She’s all around us. She watches us.” He just looked at me. I finally decided to try to level with him, as leveling with a three year old is always the smart choice (ha ha). I said, “Honey, Grandma was really sick. There was something in her body that made her very, very sick, and it made her heart stop working. We need our hearts to live-so we can breathe, and play, and be with other people. She can’t do those things anymore. Her body didn’t work, and now it’s here, in this ground, to be kept safe. This big stone helps people to remember who she was, and lets us come visit her and think about her.” The entire time, I kept telling myself to stop talking, to stop being so pseudo-biological and blunt about it.

He listened, looking at the ground and running his fingers through the thick grass around him. “She’s in heaven?” he said. “Yes, baby.” “Oh.” For a moment, he looked like he might start crying, and I regretted all of it. Enough of us had shed tears over her loss, and I didn’t want him to take on that burden. Not yet. He never even got to know her, just being held by her once, when he was three days old. And then she was gone. But, I think he understood, as much as his three year old abilities would permit him. “You miss your mommy, Mom?” I blinked back tears. “Yes, I do.” He gave me a little smile.

We started to get up to leave, and I said my goodbyes aloud to my mom. He followed my lead, and said, “Bye, Grandma Patti. I love you and miss you. The doctors will come and fix your heart to work again, and you will come back to life”, blowing her a kiss. More blinked-back tears. That innocence over the permanence of death, the desire to make someone else feel better, made me both incredibly sad and happy at the same time. He’s trying to understand how others feel, while learning to manage his own emotions within those contexts. That’s a hard thing, something that most of us struggle with well into adulthood.

As I drove home, him watching a show on my phone, I thought about what happened. Maybe it was OK that I shared what I did; after all, life does not exist within an absence of conflict and sadness. I want him to grow with the understanding that it’s OK to display emotion, to communicate pain in a constructive manner. Maybe he can’t really grasp the concept of death, but he can understand sadness and hurt and love. Something that my mom instilled in us was empathy, and to truly see people and their complexities, even if they aren’t on full display. This experience with D yesterday made me hope that perhaps I am starting to lay the same foundation for him, to help him intuit what is in other people’s hearts, even if he can’t fully know what has hurt them.

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Wherein I ask for a favor from you guys.

Whether you know me personally, or a reader of my blog, you know that I lost my mother to cancer, in 2013. It was a horrific ordeal, and honestly, it’s the only thing in life that truly was as awful as I imagined it would be. Actually, it was even worse.
My point is, no one should have to experience that. As a patient, or as a loved one, watching someone waste away. Cancer is insidious, and non-discriminatory, but there are incredibly significant strides being made to combat it. But that requires funding. Funding to continue research, trials, and preventive screenings, among other things.

So, that’s why we formed a Relay for Life team. If you’re not familiar with Relay for Life, you can learn more about it here. Members of my family, friends, and extended circle are working to fundraise for the American Cancer Society.

And this is where you come in. We are seeking donations for our team, and I am hoping that you, dear readers, can help us out. Every little bit helps move us closer to our goal, and closer to better treatment and support services for those living with/affected by cancer.

If you feel moved to contribute, you can do so here. Thank you in advance for helping us out!

A word on tragedy.

A precursor:  Some of you reading this may find it offensive, and that is OK.  Strong events evoke strong reactions, and this is mine.  I will not respond to, or validate any negativity from anyone.

Let me just put it out there-I can’t take anymore posts, news, information, stagnant lamenting about the horrible events of this past week.

What happened is beyond comprehension, because it was a senseless act.  There is no rationalizing any of it.  Innocent people died-many of them small children.  Like everyone else, it hurts my heart.  No one should have to endure such violence, and its resulting echo. I can’t even fathom what those involved feel, in the depths of their hearts.

I am bothered by the credence that tragedy is given, not just with this, but with the countless horrid things that happen daily in the world.  With every post about the gunman’s troubled past, we place a spotlight on his actions, thus making him the most prominent individual in this situation, not the victims.  Does endless information regarding his “social awkwardness” or possible Asperger’s Syndrome help us to make sense of the senseless? No.  Does post after post on social media asking others to wear Sandy Hook school colors, or regarding your own new-found fears of sending your child to school help anyone? Not likely.  As much as your heart hurts for those involved, remember that you weren’t.  Be thankful for that.  We are no more or less safe than we were the day before this happened.  Be mindful of the fact that children learning of this event will likely find themselves worrying about formerly unthinkable things, and will not benefit from any added amplification of those fears.

I do not mean to discredit the sympathy that we all feel for those involved (and I do feel a very deep, abiding sympathy), but I do take issue with the way we choose to channel it.  We are saturated with media coverage that places a high value on the quantification of tragedy; that is, referring to events such as these as “the worst school shooting in history” or “the second worst school shooting in history”.  Every school shooting is the worst one, for those experiencing it, and really, for our nation as a whole.  To buy into this rhetoric is to support the categorization of death’s significance,  according to the number killed. And that’s the exact opposite of what the true issue at hand really is.

So, pray and offer up a supportive thought for those suffering, in the silence of your day. And if you want to see change in our communities-stop talking about it, and do something.  Instead of perpetuating despair, perpetuate life.  Because in the midst of death and loss and unthinkable sadness, there is even greater love and joy and peace to be found.  Be a part of that.  Choose to move forward.