The first time I experienced my eldest son’s grief it was over a fossil.
A fossil of a starfish to be precise, who was aptly named “Starry.”
Our babysitter brought him back from a trip to the Gulf Coast. I saw no harm in putting him in water and entertaining the idea that “Starry” was alive. (Am I horrible?) It’s probably not surprising that I abided when my son wanted to change the water to improve his living conditions.
Long story short, in the end there were a lot of broken starfish pieces floating in a makeshift fishbowl, a lot of tears, and ultimately the first funeral for a fossil I have ever attended, before and since.
A few years later my amazing grandmother passed away. (My family is Catholic so the process of sending someone off, is well…detailed.) My eldest son was young—maybe six—and so it never even dawned on me that he should go to the funeral. I didn’t ask him if he wanted to go. I didn’t want him to know about that part of living, the dying part of living. I have since gone through many a night with many of his tears while he grieved the lost opportunity to say goodbye.
When his fish passed away, we somehow told him the fish went to “heaven” despite the fact we had never talked of “heaven.” You can imagine how confused he was. We told him heaven was a “better” place. (My youngest son, now three-years old, says he needs to go to heaven whenever he wants to be somewhere better.)
Enter fail number three.
So today, my eldest son lost another person in his life, one whom he knew and loved. One that he marveled over. And, for the first time in his life, he was experiencing grief. Real grief. Real loss. So this time, before I spoke I remembered: I remembered how hard it was to shake a soggy fossil out of a paper bag; I remembered having taken away his ability to say good bye to his great grandmother because I thought I knew what was best; I remembered.
This time I was careful. I was slow. I was open.
I let him cry; I let him not cry. And when that was done, we talked.
I asked him if he wanted to go to the funeral.
He said yes.
I asked him if he knew the body might be there and that it could be scary.
He said he knew, but if the body was there he could say goodbye.
He worried about missing Thanksgiving.
I told him about the time my friend died in high school and I had to choose between his funeral and a school trip that I worked very hard to be a part of.
He asked what I did. I answered. (I didn’t go to the funeral.)
He asked how my friend died and I told him. (Cleared up a lot about my “no-playing-guns-in-the-house” rule.)
I told him that as he experienced all of this—this sadness and anger and confusion—not to take care of anyone else’s feelings. I told him that all feelings are okay. And he isn’t in charge of making us grown-ups feel better.
He said he understood. (I think I will remind him again tomorrow.)
He said he thinks he will be sad every night.
I asked him if he knew what a gift it was to live a life where you loved enough to miss someone, and offered the idea that, as he falls asleep at night, he might begin to feel grateful.
This scary conversation—the conversation I avoided to the extent of perpetuating fantasies and telling stories I didn’t believe in—was one of the most honest conversations I have ever had with my son.
Our children will experience pain—our children will experience loss.
They will cry. They will look at us with disbelief and longing. And in those moments the best thing we can do is talk to them, like people.
And tell them how we, as people, somehow managed to make it this far.
Our job is to not make it go away, but just to be there—it will be a lot less confusing for us all.
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