Monday, April 21, 2008

When You First Understood Death

The grandmother of one of Rooster's daycare friends passed away a few mornings ago.

Rooster's friend has two older brothers - one is nine and the other is twelve.

Until about six months ago, their grandmother was actively involved in this family's lives,
regularly taking the kids to the zoo and often out to dinner.

When I picked up Roo today, I stood in the play yard talking with the children's mother.

We talked about her husbands grief and the way grief just goes on and on, coming and going like the ebb and flow of ocean waves, rising and falling.

We talked about how her children were reacting to the news. She thought maybe it hadn't fully hit them yet... or
that maybe it had.

The nine year old keeps asking not to talk about it.

How we hide from hurtful things.

Talking about her children's reaction to the death of their grandmother made me remember my own first memory of death, the moment I understood the idea that someone I loved could die, was dead.

I was nine.

My mother called me into her room in our house on Farewell Road in Columbia, Maryland.

She told me that my Pop, my Father's Father, passed away.

The next moment is such a vivid memory for me.

I smiled.

A huge grin spread across my face.

I was old enough to feel ashamed of that, knowing it wasn't the right response, but perhaps not old enough to know the right way to respond.

When we went to my the funeral, Pop's body rested in an open casket.

I remember playing with my cousins among the mourner's chairs.

Eventually, one of my parents took me to stand beside the casket and say a final goodbye.

Maybe it was my Dad.

He might have given the waxy face, that looked like Pop but wasn't, a kiss.

I might have said Goodbye, I don't know.

The next thing I remember is my Grandmother finding me under the sink in the ladies room crying and crying.

That was the moment I understood.


WILLIAM said...

A great post.

And One I did not need on Monday Morning. They don't make the space under sinks big enough for us adults.

Circus Kelli said...

Very well-written.

I don't remember the moment I first understood death.


Jennifer said...

I remember when my grandfather died. It didn't sink in until I saw him at the wake - and then I just lost it. My mom had to take me out of there to calm down. The hardest part was watching my grandmother, though. She never shed a tear until we got home from the funeral and she was alone. Irish stoicism, I guess.

Marmite Breath said...

I don't know if I'm ever going to understand it. Everytime I think I've got a handle on it, I realize I am still more stymied.

This is evident by the fact that this past week, I have both congratulated myself on how well I dealt with the death of my Gran, and then felt this pain wash over me again as I realized she is never coming back, as if I didn't understand it at the time.

Stella said...

Excellent post.

I think I was 14 and my great grandmother died. All I could think of was who was going to continue to tell her stories, the ones she shared with us so often.

Assertagirl said...

For me it was my great-grandmother. I was 10, and I thought it was so strange that in the basement of the funeral home, her children and their spouses were sitting and smoking and drinking and laughing. I didn't understand this form of grief.

jenny from mommin' it up! said...

I was nine also. My aunt died of cancer at 36. I had prayed for her that morning. I remember thinking when my mom told me the news, that she had already been dead at the time I prayed for her. SO much for a child to understand, and not understand.

Mad said...

I was 7 when my dad died. Not only did I have to learn quickly how to understand death but I also had to learn about our economy and just what it means for a family of 6 kids to lose its sole bread-winner...and, of course, the after effects of all this on my mother. Death, the economy, and mental health will always be linked for me. I suppose that's why I'm the social democrat that I've become.

furiousBall said...

it's been different for me each time. i'm still getting my noggin around my father's passing

Sadie said...

Wonderful post. I remember my first moment as well. I was 5, and my great-grandmother had passed. Much of it is a blur but I still remember very clearly standing at the reception and crying in anger because everyone was laughing and having a good time...and my GrandmaB was dead. I didn't understand...and it was my dad that found me like that.

It's so tough to understand and I fear the day my kids will have to understand will be sooner, not later...

mamatulip said...

I remember the first time I experienced death. I was in grade four and my grandmother died, and when I heard my mom crying I went up to my room and laughed.

I've always felt guilty about that, but I realized years later I was laughing because the way my mom was crying scared me. I wanted to hear laughter and get the sound of her crying out of my head.

This is a beautiful post.

CamiKaos said...

thank you for this

bzybead said...

I was sitting at the dinner table and my dad said to my brother Mike, "I heard you lost one of your classmates today." My mom shot him the look of evil. . . she continued to tell us that Patti died during an open-heart surgery. My brother Mike put down his fork and said that he was no longer hungry. I joined in, "me either" (I still don't say neither when I'm supposed to). I didn't know why I should no longer be hungry, but after time I realized that Patti would no longer be in the basement singing Rhinestone Cowboy while galloping around on a broomstick. I was in 2nd Grade and Patty was in 5th. My best friend was her sister, Karen. It's strange that I only remember my one brother and my dad at the table and my mom at the sink -- where would my other 3 brother's have been? Most likely they were there, but they just weren't part of the picture.

jess said...

I was six when my dad's father died. I remember my mom telling us and being very consciously solemn countenance because I knew somehow that she expected it. But I was thinking, "I don't feel sad at all."

We were living in Venezuela at the time and I didn't get to go to the funeral, so it never really became real.

kittenpie said...

I think I was about 9, too, when my grandfather died, and the open casket left me hysterical.

Kyla said...

I never had a moment like that as a child. I didn't lose anyone close to me until a few years ago.

Beautiful post.

Mel said...

My first real loss was my grandmother, my mother's mother. I knew and understood death before this, having lost a few pets; but then, at the funeral, the realization struck me that they were going to put my grandmother in the ground. I pretty much just lost it and ran out of the services. Not a pleasant memory for anyone, I don't think.

Traceytreasure said...

How touching. I had to deal with losing my favorite person in the world 10-27-04. I wasn't prepared for the intense wave of depression that hit me after she was gone. She would have been turning 76 tomorrow. If you read my post about her you might need a tissue. She's the closest thing I've had to a real mom. Death is always so final for those of us left behind. I hate it! Hugs, J

HW said...

My dad died 4 days ago, on my daughter's 14th birthday.

And in the last 4 days, I have kind of longed for the time when I didn't understand death....

Redneck Mommy said...

I think I truly understood death when I turned eleven. My grade six teacher was diagnosed with lung cancer and three weeks later she died.

I adored her. It was then I understood some people just don't come back.

Sugarplum's Mom said...

Beautiful post.

For me - it was when I ws as 8. My father died. I answered the phone from the hospital and my mom left quickly. I wasn't allowed to go with her. When she came home and told us he had died, she took me in the backyard and asked me to pick a cloud. She told me that from that day forward, he would always be there, behind that cloud, watching over me, protecting me and he would always be with me in my heart. I refused to go to his memorial service. I remember telling her in the living room it would be too hard and I didn't want to go. That was when I understood.

Omaha Mama said...

My great grandfather. I was nine. But not terribly sad. It was weird, how grey he looked and the wrinkles smoothed.

Can't say that I understand death now. Not really.

jeanie said...

I can't really remember when I first understood about death. I grew up on a property - sex, birth and death were pretty much right there all the time!

My daughter's father died before she was two, and it was a slow unfolding of her understanding of it.

When she was 3, her new cousin had some pretty serious health issues - but some amazing doctors fixed him up. She wanted to know if the doctors could do that for her dad, and that is when she really understood the finality of it - as perhaps did I.

Worker Mommy said...

Hmm,pain and loss is certainly something I wish I could spare my kids from forever.

In eighth grade my great grandma (we called her granny) died. Granny had always been a part of my life. I remember going to school upset and asking to visit my counselor. I remember my counselor saying " but you didn't really know her did you. Are you just upset because your parents are upset ?".
The thought of that now just makes me so angry. What kind of response is was that ?
Talk about lacking any sort of compassion whatsoever

Queen of the Mayhem said...

We have been dealing with a lot of loss here at the Mayhem. I know exactly how you my nine year old daughter just experienced it for the first time.

I cried...not only for the lost of my father in law....but for my baby's loss of innocence!

carrie said...

Yes, you did.

I was 4 and a half. My younger cousin died unexpectedly and the last time I saw her (I wasn't allowed to go to the funeral), I had pinched her hand in between the door and the doorframe, causing lots of tears and I remember how bad I felt. For the longest time, I thought getting your hand pinched in the door would cause death. I had no clue.

Aliki2006 said...

This was so good for me to read right now. It's good to remember that small children just don't quite get it, do they, about that finality, that awfulness of death? And when they do get it--they finally understand--you almost wish you could turn back the clocks to when they didn't know.

Ivy Brown said...

In less than a year, my best friend lost her toddler and I lost my father. Though I have lost people before this, I don't think it hit home the way it did until recently. I'm not sure if it's because I'm older and more aware of how fragile it all is or what. But as you know, it knocked me for a loop for a bit there and caused me to take a cold hard look at my own life.

Mamma said...

My four year-old just the other night asked me if we are all going to die a long, long time ago. I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to tell him the truth. But I had to.

Watching his big, blue eyes well up with tears just about broke my heart.

Mamma said...

My four year-old just the other night asked me if we are all going to die a long, long time ago. I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to tell him the truth. But I had to.

Watching his big, blue eyes well up with tears just about broke my heart.

Deb said...

Oh, that we could rewind and unlearn some things.

Anonymous said...

My first funeral was my Uncle Al - a man I wish I'd known. I was probably 5 or 6. I remember being upset that I didn't feel like crying. I knew I was supposed to.

A few years later one of my cousins... then a teenager... was killed in a car accident on July 4th. I didn't really know him ... but when Grandpa died a few years later I learned how to cry at funerals.

When I was 15 - my 23 year old sister was murdered. Her son was 2 and a half. Three years later my grandma died... and when my mom went to tell my nephew (5 at this point) he looked at her very seriously and said, "I don't like to hear that."
Amazing. All that kid knew was that everyone said his mom was dead, he couldn't grasp it. So when his favorite Granny died, he knew it wasn't a happy thing.

I've been to as many funerals as weddings. And since my sister was murdered... I'm pretty realistic about death.

It was a real eye-opener when my boyfriend's dad died suddenly last June. It was the first death that ever touched him... and I didn't know how to relate, since I've been dealing with death for 20 years.
I had to cover up the.... "He was 82 years old. People die." attitude and learn how to console him.

We all have much to learn about death. And about the living.

Magpie said...

Oh, sigh.

My mother is dying, and I can't quite figure out what my four year old understands. She knows that Granny is sick. And the other day, Granny was sleeping, and she asked me if she was dead. It took me aback, it did.

urban-urchin said...

Beautiful post.

I was older- one of my closest friends died of AIDS while I was in college- I remember wondering what all the cars were doing on the road and all the stores were doing open as we drove to the funeral. It truly was like Auden's poem "Stop All the Clocks".

Anonymous said...

"Farewell Road." How perfect.

crabapple said...

I think I had a friend who lived on Farewell Ct--was that in Oakland Mills? How long did you live in Columbia? the internet sure is a small place.

crazymumma said...

I remember responding awkwardly to news of death when I was a child.
Its all so strange to understand.

Beck said...

I had seven grandparents when I was born and one by one they died - tremendously old - throughout my childhood, losses I took with calmness since they were so old as to barely be present. The first big loss for me was my grandmother when I was 22 - it was huge and terrible.

Occidental Girl said...

I never had thought about grief being cyclical before, but that makes sense. Most of the time, I don't think about my dad or brother, but then something will bring up a memory and I'm right back in the moment of loss.

I just had dreams about deceased loved ones, and even dreams bring up such strong feelings. There is no defense against this happening, either. You just have to go with it, no matter how badly it hurts.

Emily said...

Wow. Reading the comments is amazing. This post is cathartic, I think.

My first loss was Pop. (He was my Grandad's Dad.) I think I was 6. He was a bitter, stubborn old man. I remember feeling sad that he had never been kind to me, had never really liked me.

I remember my Dad cradling me outside the very church where we would bury my Grandad, nearly 20 years later. It is one of my favorite memories of my Dad because of how he held me and let me cry and be sad in the moment. It's one of the few times I remember feeling like his little girl; like he would hold me up while the world fell apart for a while.

Your comments section has become a therapy session, Jess.

Manor House said...

Avoiding the void.
We are teaching ourselves how to deal with loss. Very recently, or at least it seems to be very recently, we lost a member of our family. It was sudden and unexpected, and way too early for it to happen. This is probably the main reason why we need so much training to handle this.

The loss of a loved one always leaves a huge unfillable gap. It represents a rift in your everyday geology. If the ground doesn't split in between you legs, you're lucky. At least you didn't fall in. But then you're left on one side, and the other side seems so far away that you feel you'll never be able to cross over. Everything there was on the other side is lost forever, it is there for you to see and remember, but it is unreachable. People swear that some day, you will find that the rift has shrunk. So much, in fact, that you might be able to jump over it. You spend a long time staring at it, not making up your mind to try. You're too scared you might fall in and never climb out. And then one day, I guess you simply jump. The other side is yours again.

It takes an awful lot of time to learn how to work around that void. It is not a theory, it's palpable, like an air bubble in the house that stops you from sitting in a particular chair or picking up a particular item. The visual and auditory memories fade quickly, but the more primitive senses of smell and touch always find a way to betray you. And then he's there. Where he shouldn't be, where you know he couldn't possibly be, still he's there, staring at you in the face. Sometimes it feels like a hard slap and your eyes fill up with tears so suddenly that there seems to be nothing you can do to stop it. And the moment passes, the day is just another day, and you go on.

I have still to discover a way to explain all this to my kid. We've said all the right stuff, about the long trip, about the sky and the stars, about how he's watching over us. They didn't make me feel better. I can't really know if they made my son feel better. There is absolutely no way I can understand his version of the void, or how big it feels in his tiny little heart. I can't know if he's dealing with the void or if he's simply turning away from it, refusing to look at it, avoiding it. I don't know if he has accepted it or forgotten about it. He still mentions the name, rather frequently. He seems to remember everything they ever did together. Sometimes he tries to call him on the phone. He never looks upset or sad, the only thing that suggests a change in the way he feels about loss, is a slight alteration in the way he takes it when his mother and I have to go somewhere.

Then again, I don't even know how I'm dealing with the void yet. I'm so afraid of losing another one that sometimes I almost can't breathe. I'm so afraid of dying that every little discomfort, every minor pain becomes my cause of death. I cough and check my hand for blood. I feel lightheaded and think about brain tumors. Sometimes I look at my son and my mind is flooded with all the terrible things that might happen to him, and I just want to lie down and close my eyes and shut down all my emotional functions. Now that this person has died, I feel death has moved across the street and he's never going away.

But we're strong. We're happy, and we're together. We take each other's hand and make the next step. And the next. And maybe we're moving slowly, but we're moving forward. And maybe the only way of dealing with the void is to avoid it until you are really ready to face it and blow the bubble and have a life back. It won't be your old life, it will be a life full of "without"s, but life is life.