May began with a funeral and ended with a wedding. We let our kids do both.
Allowing them to participate in the wedding was a no-brainer. Of course they would take the opportunity to be flower girls and a junior bridesmaid for a close family friend. It was an honor and a joy.
Truthfully, we gave no greater thought to the question of whether they would visit their grandmother on her deathbed than we did to whether they would stand up in the wedding. Of course they would.
This was their Geegee, the one who made chicken noodle soup for them every visit, who washed their hands at the kitchen sink meal after meal, who scoured stores every spring for pretty, cotton dresses for them to wear. She was dying, and they needed to say good-bye. It felt as simple as that.
It’s true that their grandmother was much changed—the alertness gone from her eyes, her ability to talk vanished. She could no longer move or feed herself. For all of us, our grieving began as soon as we beheld her new state. Rick, my father-in-law, and I sat with her, alternately talking to her and giving in to our own tears. Our kids did the same. They followed our example in how to relate to their grandmother in her changed condition—to engage the pain openly and persist in loving her. It took courage, and they proved up to it.
Some might shield their children from death, but we did not consider it. There was nothing gory about my mother-in-law’s state, just the declining body of a woman who had lived a very full 81 years and had suffered a major stroke. She had gently cared for my kids in their earliest years, and now they could care for her in her final days. It felt right.
And it felt important to introduce our kids to the natural course of life in this way. In all things, Rick and I try to tell our kids the truth—about life, about relationships, about the world. This was a chance to show them the truth, painful though it was. Together, we walked through those hard days at Geegee’s bedside.
We believed that they could engage this most important moment in our family’s life if we modeled how to do it and then talked them through it. With their parents’ company, children can face hard things.
Facing my mother-in-law’s death and shepherding our kids through it was easier because of our faith and hers, of course. We do not believe that earthly death is the end, but is actually the entrance to face-to-face life with Jesus for those who choose it. And so we felt hope amidst our grief. We spoke of eternity, of Jesus preparing a place for Geegee, of God numbering her earthly days exactly right. We were not inviting our kids to gaze into a dark abyss, but to imagine a joyous homecoming with the One who loves us extravagantly.
Just as we help our kids understand other pivotal occasions like births and weddings, we can help them engage deaths. Like tour guides of life, we point out the sights, explain their significance, and model how to participate. I believe that a child who has been walked through a variety of life’s sights will be more prepared for adulthood with its mixed beauty and pain.
©Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2017