Dancing Circles Around Us
We buried their grandma yesterday. We all feel hung over from grief, from happiness, from family, from life, from death, from not enough sleep, from everyone being way too sick way too many times over the past month. We are just so much fun to be around right now, honestly.
Well, one of us actually is. Per usual. I know she feels everything, too, in her own way, though her natural way of coping through a hard month is something to behold. My natural way definitely is not: I am lying under a heap of blankets while she dances around with her shadow and a flower from her grandmother’s funeral. She is wearing her pajamas underneath a furry vest that was to be her Christmas present from her grandma; her grandpa gave it to her early in light of everything. My girl is dancing to music I have playing, but she is making up her own lyrics, “I want a bagel with butter! Grandma Flavin’s somewhere else! Little kids see spirits MORE THAN anyoooooone!”
I know many people are afraid of scaring (and scarring) their kids by bringing them to wakes and funerals, by exposing them to death, so they just don’t. I do not share this fear. I think just the opposite: I think we can scare and scar by not teaching and sharing, by not answering their natural and normal curiosities about life and death.
Of the things I’m scared of my children learning about the world, experiencing the death of a person who has lived a long life is not even on the list. In fact, we’ve always talked about it all – we all only get a limited time, one day I’m going to die, one day they’re going to die, let’s love our people, and stop the whining, por favor.
My children have come with me to wakes and funerals since birth, so I don’t remember how we started talking about any of it because we have always talked about all of it. All I knew then was that I didn’t want their first wake or funeral to be mine. If we were lucky enough, I wanted them to understand the process of how we mourn before they needed to mourn during the process. If we were lucky enough, I wanted them to experience death before they HAD to experience death. I am ok with them being as aware and as curious about death as they might be about any of the other millions of things in life.
She saw her daddy’s tears yesterday – mine, too. All of our kids did. They wiggled their way between us and around our legs, and weaved in and out while we sat and said good-bye to their daddy’s mom. They listened to us talk in the car to and from the funeral parlor, the church, the cemetery. This girl is just the same dancing girl she’s always been, with a bit more life experience behind her, with a flower from her grandma’s funeral after having watched her family love their person right on into the ground. It felt sad, and sad is ok. I never saw them feel scared, though, not through this experience, anyways.
I find that our adult fears are not their fears, unless we pass them on. If I am afraid of death, of being there for our people when our people or their people die, then they, too, will feel afraid. Often, going into a wake, especially when it’s a really sad situation, I am nervous. Being sad is uncomfortable in front of people; watching other people feel sad in front of you can be equally so. I have told my kids how sometimes when I get to the front of the wake line, I have to repeat over and over in my head what not to say because I sometimes feel my brain start to malfunction. I’ve always felt like I might say “Congratulations!” – as my brain wants a one-word salutation to translate my sadness for their loss. They laugh, “Mom! That’s not what you’d ever say!” Of course it’s not. There isn’t a one-word refrain that we can use for times like those, which makes us have to work harder to be there for our people. So we grab for words and hope we say something meaningful or, at the very least, not idiotic. At the very least, not “Congratulations.” Anything beats that. We do our best. We show up. We hug our people.
This weekend they were the ones getting the hugs in between giving them to their grandfather. I don’t know of a better way to grieve than with a child in your life – you just move along because the circle of life is literally dancing in circles right in front of you.
They’ve had so many questions since their grandma’s stroke, some of which I can answer clearly, others for which I don’t have a clear answer, so then they usually answer for themselves. They asked again about burial and cremation (or, “roasting” as my daughter calls it – and I don’t correct that. We all need to find our comic relief somewhere). I moderate their discussion and dissection of life and what comes after it all mostly by asking them what they think, how they feel. It’s amazing how quickly they get to the heart of the matter and also how well they deal with it all. Nothing is that confusing when you’ve known about it all along. They have never not known that I would die – hopefully and dreadfully – before they do; we’ve talked about what that would be like. I get weepy; they are matter-of-fact about it all and only a little weepy at this stage in their lives. The whole process of how our families’ cultures do it – the wakes and the funerals – is somewhat run-of-the-mill for them now, the same way it was for me when I was growing up.
When their grandma was dying, my older two – 7 and 4 years old – wanted to see her in the hospital. Some thought that might be scary for them. My husband and I reviewed the situation and it didn’t look scary to us even after pretending to put on their eyes. We brought my son; my daughter fell asleep early that night and she’s still mad she missed that trip. He saw his grandma. He talked to her. He witnessed what it can be like for some people in the end; it was not scary. He was nervous, but not scared – the same as I was the first time I saw her, the same way I ever am when I’m going to be by someone’s side and I am not sure of the situation, the same way most of us are even while we show up anyways. My husband said all of the lovely things you’d want your son to say to you if you were lying on your death bed – how much he loved her, how much she meant to him, how he wished they could’ve had some real good and healthy years together with our children, how everyone would miss her. My son watched. Until then, I had held it together decently, but that was too much. Watching my mother-in-law lie there with her baby boy holding her and whispering all of the things I hope my own son, who was standing beside me, would say to me when I’m lying there someday – come on. No one could’ve lasted through that.
As we left, I said to my son, “So I guess that was the first time you saw me really cry. Sorry, buddy. I was sad seeing daddy with his mom and being there with you, my son.”
“You didn’t really cry, you were more huffing, puffing, and wiping in your sleeve like you just couldn’t get a hold of yourself. You weren’t even crying normally. It was more like heavy crying breathing,” he said. He hugged me while he said it so I’m calling that an empathy win. I’ll take what I can get.
We hugged. He laughed. I laughed. Crying, huffing, puffing, wiping, hugging, talking sweetly, dying, living, laughing, being there, saying sorry, showing up… How else does one get through life? Ain’t no other way.
Except, also, to dance your way through it all. Or lie down and watch the ones who do until you can get up and join them again.