Thursday, December 28, 2006

When a Family Member Dies

Late Wednesday evening, we received word that my husband's grandmother had passed away. She was frail and in ill health - they'd been feeding her via a tube for a week now after she broke the bone under the gum area and couldn't swallow. She was already quite thin and weak, so we weren't expecting much in the way of recovery.

Still, there was no definitive warning. She had just been released from the hospital to a therapy nursing home, where she was supposed to learn how to swallow and walk again. Apparently, she'd just finished a therapy session and returned to bed, where she died without any warning signs.

I fear she died alone, but am unsure. She was something of a mother to my Hubby - she apparently raised him during his preschool years. I'm not sure how to handle this with my Little Bit. We saw her Christmas Day, and Little Bit was afraid of her condition and confused by what was going on. She wanted to know if she'd be all better. I told her maybe - sometimes people did get better. But sometimes, when people got really old and sick, they had to go to God to feel better. And if they did that, we wouldn't be able to see her again.

I don't know if that was a good answer or not. Today, we told her she'd went to God to be better. Little Bit seems to feel this means she'll return. I'm afraid with what we told her after our miscarriage, she's going to be very confused about this whole God/death thing. I want her to feel good about God. I want her to be okay with death - at least until she's old enough to work through it for herself. Some sites I've read suggest not bringing God into it at all, since Little Ones can misunderstand and develop fears about God taking them away. I don't want that.

I guess there isn't a right answer. But I feel like I'm farther away from a good answer than I want to be. Maybe that's because I'm so ambivalent about death and God myself. I wish I felt more certain. I hope she doesn't think I've sold her a bill of goods on God one day. I want her to have more faith than I do, or than her father does. I think it would make life - and death - much easier to take if she did.

Today, I'd planned to report on a book called "New Family Traditions," which presents rituals for the family. There are a lot of good ideas, but I notice there is nothing on dealing with a family member's death. There is a chapter on pets and some ideas for rituals to perform when pets die - but nothing about humans. I find that very odd and, frankly, a disturbing indication about modern values. It's more important to have ceremonies for pets than people.

True, children will lose many pets during their life and there aren't rituals for this. But it's also true that there are a lot of human losses - miscarriages, deaths - among family and friends and even your children's friends' families. Shouldn't there be a small ritual for these losses that looks beyond the normal funeral home visit?

This has come up a lot for us this year. A good friend lost her four-month-old to SIDS this year, and she's struggled to redefine her family, to establish new rituals to remember her son and to help the family heal. Her preschooler is the hardest to deal with, because she simply can't grasp the idea her baby brother isn't going to "finish being dead."

As I mentioned, we had the miscarriage this year. Because I was so sick during the first trimester, I'd told Little One about the baby. She was very disappointed when she learned the baby wouldn't be coming and she still asks me sometimes, "Did we have our baby yet?" We did attend a Walk to Remember, held to remember babies lost in miscarriage and infancy. They had a very nice ceremony where Little Ones could make signs commemorating the lost child and wear them during the walk. Then we walked around a downtown park. We gathered to hear each child's name read - even if it was only Baby Lastname - while a cello played softly. We were given a small silver token with an angle on it and then we all released white balloons into the air.

It was so sad, watching all those white balloons rise and float away like little souls. But it was very healing and I was grateful that they'd taken steps to involve siblings.

Once again, we're faced with questions about handling death in our family. Do we bring Little Bit to the funeral home? The funeral? She can't even be quiet for a church service - and what will she make of so many people being upset? I don't want to hide our emotions from her, but I also don't want to overwhelm and scare her.

I'll be posting more about this in the days to come and welcome any input from readers about handling deaths within the family.

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