death and dying

by humanmama on April 5, 2010

My uncle Reid died this week. He was diagnosed with cancer and given “10 months to live” 10 months ago. Almost to the day. It’s strange, because I feel like you constantly hear “they told me I had 10 months to live…and that was 12 years ago!” stories, but it didn’t happen here. They said “10 months” and in 9 and 1/2 months, he was barely hanging on. It was terrible to see. The last days my sister and I went up to Michigan, held his hands, talked to him, and knew it wasn’t going to be long. On Sunday, early in the morning, he died, leaving 2 brothers and 4 nieces and nephews.

Ben and I and both of our girls, my sister and her husband, all went up for the viewing and funeral. It was a lot to handle, as funerals always are, and especially tough considering the inherent unfairness of it all–if I can say that. That question of “why??” hung over our heads all week. Helena, who will be 4 in June, was her typical self, gave me a big hug when I cried, played with our 4-year-old cousin… But the death thing stuck with her, and I wondered how it would come out.

When we arrived back in Pittsburgh, as we unloaded the car and got bags and boxes unpacked, I noticed Helena putting her bear into a laundry basket and carrying him around. When I took a minute to listen, she was saying “Beary lost his voice.” (She says “boyce.”) “Beary is dead.” I hadn’t noticed she was even paying attention to the verbiage, as we all were fairly careful to say “Uncle Reid is in Heaven,” and the like. Someone at the funeral said (of our 4-year-old cousin) “She has a pretty good grasp on what death is.” And I replied “Really? That’s better than any adult I know, then,” since I do not know of anyone with a “pretty good grasp” of death.

I went to Helena, and held her, and said “what happened to Beary?” She said that he had lost his ‘boyce,’ and is dead, and is sleeping. I said “Like Uncle Reid?” and she said something about when “Papa loses his boyce…” I told her “Papa is not sick, and he isn’t going anywhere.” Papa is my dad. I said “Uncle Reid had Cancer, and his body was really, really tired. So his mind had to go to Heaven, where they eat ice cream sundaes for breakfast every day!”

If you know my daughter, you probably know that she didn’t buy it.

I tried to talk to her, and what happened eventually is that she wanted to play with Daddy. Which was a good thing, a positive sign. Life does indeed go on. But death? It’s one of those things, again, that parenting is all about: wanting to protect them so badly from the hurt in life, while at the same time struggling to leave them informed and equipped. What does a 4-year-old grasp? What does a 30-year-old grasp? Maybe it’s about even, I’m thinking.

Hug a loved one, and thank whoever you thank that they’re healthy today. And don’t argue with me about Heaven–who knows? They just might serve ice cream sundaes in heaven for breakfast.

At least, I dare you to prove me wrong.

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