Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Explaining death

When we took the kids to their great-grandmother's funeral in January, we spent much of the five-hour drive up to New Jersey explaining death. Then we talked about cemeteries, and decomposition, and returning to the earth, and walking on the grass, and bones beneath our feet. We talked so much about what is a person beyond a collection of bones and breaths. Where do a person's ideas go? And feelings? Maybe I succeeded the tiniest bit in explaining souls; surely no more because they're incomprehensible to me, no matter how many funerals I attend.

We weren't a cemetery-going family when I was a kid. That we had no nearby dead relatives is probably the simplest explanation. Everyone who mattered to us was buried far away. Cemeteries were things of movies and poetry.

The year we stayed at that beach house in Delaware, we passed a cemetery every time we left the house and turned on to the main road. The light by the shore is dewy and bright, the grass perpetually lush, the gravestones glistening sentries on the flattest verdant tract. E noticed the stones, every time we made the turn, and was old enough to recognize letters upon them. That was when we first talked about cemeteries and bodies under earth and finality. She was three, and I don't think she'd ever yet encountered a 'no' that was really a permanent 'never.' Death confounded her. She isn't the only one.

Last weekend we were travelling, and we stopped to see the cemetery where my grandmother and great-grandparents are buried, because I don't know when we'll be there again. The girls are aware enough, now. They have some death experience. Before we drove through the gates L fretted that we didn't have any pebbles to place atop the gravestones. She knows what to do and finds comfort in ritual. "It's a Jewish cemetery," I told her. "We'll be able to find some landscaping with lots of little rocks." And so we did. And each kid placed a tiny stone on each graven stone until none were lonely and a light rain started to fall. And we talked about death a little more.

Tonight I lay in her bed and talked with E about death some more. Again a father of one of her classmates has died. She will hear the news from her teacher and guidance counselor in class tomorrow and I wanted to give her the space to hear it from me first, in the dark, in my arms. This gets more familiar but it doesn't get easier.

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