My first funeral was for my beautiful young Aunt Connie who took her own life. Her children, my cousins Monti and Lee Marie, were younger than me when she died and I was five. When I think of my little cousins now, I’m ashamed. I have never once asked them about their lives growing up without her. Over 40 years of Christmases, weddings, graduation parties, First Holy Communion parties, and 4th of July picnics in our Aunt Lucy’s backyard, not once have I dared to speak her name to them for fear of upsetting them, or my uncle, or my aunt whom he married afterward. Aunt Connie is who I pray to when I am in deep, deep trouble, but I’ve never told them that. Surely, they must do the same.
According to research shared by Children’s Grief Awareness Day, one in five children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 15. Those who do not access resources to help them grieve will suffer longer and worse. Their trouble may manifest as depression, substance abuse, or any of the other usual suspects that come knocking when grief cannot be processed.
For too many of these children, the explanations and advice they can expect from the world will be euphemistic and unhelpful: “She’s in a better place.” “She’s at peace.” “She can rest.” It may even be damaging: “He’s only sleeping.” “Heaven needed another angel.” “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” What kids need are tools to process their natural curiosity, fear, and sadness about death.
Kids who do get support or whose families model healthy coping skills fare better in the short and long run. I am one of the fortunate ones whose parents modeled grief and faced death well—by which I mean only that they did it honestly, true to their personalities.
My mother announced her 71-year-old mother’s death, following a miserable decline from Alzheimer’s, as a relief. I gasped when she told me the nursing home had called. But Mom only shook her head and said, “Honey, I been prayin’ for that woman to die.”
I had not been praying for my Nonna to die, but I was old enough to know my mother was having a different experience. As a child, I found Nonna’s confusion endearing. I once spied her alone in her kitchen, whistling sweet and high to an imaginary bird that seemed to hop along the table at her command. When we visited, she would forget she’d already greeted us. Fifteen minutes into the visit, she’d look up suddenly, as if we’d just arrived. Her face broke into a smile and her eyes lit up. Then the exclaiming over how big we got, how beautiful we were, the kisses to cover our whole faces—it would start all over again!
But I wasn’t there when she got lost in the basement and screamed blood curdling screams into a corner, frozen and terrified, until someone came and saved her. I wasn’t there the day she punched my sister Amy in the jaw for trying to keep her from going out the front door in socks in the snow. By the time she died, Nonna looked about eight years old and had long since stopped being able to speak or purse her lips to receive our kisses—though my heart beats like a cartoon character in love to remember her kiss was one of the last things to go.
A year after Nonna’s death, I panicked upon learning that my father’s father, who did not go to church with us and did not believe in God, would soon die from lung cancer. He had taught us to play poker and laughed in that way that was no sound but wheezing, followed by coughing. This is a trait I’d always loved in smokers, not realizing they were actually dying. I could not bear the thought of that man, who smelled perfectly of cigarettes and Grandma’s perfume, burning in hell for eternity. Though it was clear to me, because I listened in church, hell was just where he was headed.
I paced my bedroom, crying, and could not calm myself. My brother sent for Mom, who found me curled up, still sobbing, in bed. She slid under the covers behind me, wrapped her whole body around mine, and put her mouth by my ear while she explained that, “God would never do that to him.” “But he didn’t believe in God,” I protested, choking between each word. “He won’t go to hell,” she repeated. “Why?” I asked. “Because of how much Grandma loved him.”
This made just enough sense that I slept that night. But I worried after he died, until a dream of him sitting by my bed in the pajamas he wore the last time I saw him alive, put my fears to rest. “I’m okay Stasia,” was all he said. I believed him, believed my dream, and never worried again.
When my mother’s father, my Nonno, asked to be allowed to die at age 91, my mom, her seven siblings, and their spouses conferred and quickly gave their blessing. He had fallen, broken his hip, and contracted pneumonia in the hospital. They wasted no time arguing but readily assented, despite enormous sadness, to let him go. They took turns keeping vigil and refused all procedures offered by hospital staff to treat the pneumonia.
My father is a different story. At age 63, at his own mother’s funeral, my father howled. He moaned. He rocked in his chair, his back quaking to contain his sobs.
An empty coat rack stood behind the funeral director as she spoke of Sarah Elias Higginbotham without knowing a thing about the stylish old Syrian lady whose favorite poker game was Queens and Follow the Queens, who wrote “Sad Day” on her calendar and underlined it to commemorate the deaths of friends and family, and who fed us the most delicious shunkleesh, hot peppers, and Syrian bread I would ever eat in my life.
When the funeral director finished talking, the song “What A Wonderful World” played over our heads as my dad and his sisters were called by name to leave the room we were in and go back to the one where the casket was. With some effort, Dad got up to follow his sister Ardith through the door.
“This is shitful!!!” he yelled suddenly, a word he used often that did apply to this particular moment. Then he raised his arm and whacked the open door with the flat of his hand as he passed by it. The sound was like a gunshot. My arms flew into the air the way you do when a bank robber says: “Stick’em up!”
My parents’ grief over the deaths of their parents and my own silence toward my dear cousins taught me plenty about coping with death. You grieve however you grieve. It comes out however it does. Or else it stays in. And you better believe your kids are watching you and listening too. They will remember.
My own children are six and eleven now, and death has not yet struck their inner circle. When it does, they can count on me to leave out the spin about their loved one being in a better place, the peace and the rest that they will find there. They won’t hear me urging them or anyone else to move on, and they already know there’s a big difference between death and sleeping.
My responsibility as their parent is just to let death be how it is: sad and scary, slow or sudden, natural but never quite fair.
—Anastasia Higginbotham is the author of Death Is Stupid and the creator of Ordinary Terrible Things, a series of children’s books published by the Feminist Press.