I remember as a child, my parents’ long time friend was dying in a town about an hour and a half away. We would leave on Friday after school and go visit. My parents would leave us mostly in the waiting room of the hospital. It was the 1970s. My parents would come out to see if we were OK through out the visit and then we would go out for dinner. What I remember from this besides the gummy bears that I had for the first time at the restaurant, was witnessing my parents’ dedication to a friend they loved while she was dying. What a heritage they gave both my sister and I! We saw and experienced what it meant to be a friend, and what it meant to love someone when they were facing death.
About this time my mother’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. My mother would go to be with her on the weekends. Dad took care of us at home. He was a good cook and a fabulous dad. I remember one Saturday talking about my grandma’s imminent death with my cousins in her kitchen. We were all very solemn and sad. I think this was the first time someone so close to us was going to die and we knew we could not change that. My grandma did die when I was seven. I did not cry. I felt bad for a long time that I did not cry. I have cried since. Grandma’s funeral was a beautiful event. Her favourite poems were read and many people came to share memories. What I remember so clearly from that day was that we cousins held up in the backroom throughout the whole gathering that followed her funeral back at the house. Every single cousin was there. The next time all the cousins gathered again was at Grandpa’s funeral when we were all in our thirties. We gathered then as adults with our spouses and children if we had them. It was quite the event. We danced in the living room to his music and told stories. That was the last time we have gathered as a family. I hold both these funerals dear in my heart.
The point of these stories is that my introduction into death and dying took place in the context of everyday life. Dad had work to do in the cemetery and we would tag along. Mom and Dad had a dear friend who was dying, and they took us with them. My grandmother was also dying and we kids shared what we thought about it with each other and then when she died, we comforted each other and became even closer. I cannot and will not tell any parent how or when to introduce a child to the concept of death, but I offer my experiences. My parents took everyday events to teach us about death and dying. We learned that our ancestors have stories to tell. We learned that when a friend is dying, we make an effort to visit them because we love them and that is what love looks like. We learned that kids our own age understand what it means to loose someone we love and that in grief and loss, we can love each other through it. Death and dying were not traumatic events in my life. Death is sad, but not traumatic. From a young age I learned to be there for people we love when they are dying and when in grief. I learned not to fear death, but that it is part of the fabric of life and we need to show up and love people especially in the difficult times. Death is one of those difficult times.