Wednesday, October 03, 2012

What Gets You Through

I'm sure you've heard the lines before.  "Why are you taking your children to a funeral?  They don't understand what's going on."  For some reason, we believe it not just possible but necessary to prevent our children's exposure to the reality of death.  For some reason, we believe that adults "get it" and children "don't".  We believe there is some magic cocoon in which children dwell that death, in whatever form, just can't penetrate.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit over the past couple days.  Monday afternoon, Miriam came home from school and told me that a friend of hers lost his father to a heart attack on Friday.  An eleven year old boy now has to face the rest of his life without any chance to get to know the man fifty percent of whose genetic material makes him who he is.  He won't have his Father around to teach him how to drive.  He won't get in arguments about homework or how late he can stay out.

These are all horrible things.  They tear at our hearts, make us want to "do something" that cannot be done - take the pain away.  My parents both lost siblings when they were children, and I can say without fear or equivocation the pain never goes away.  My parents are 91 and 88 and I know they live every day with the reality of loss almost a century old.  All anyone can do is find ways to heal, to let the wound not go away yet not become the overriding reality of life.  Far too many people do not, and therein is the real tragedy.

Thanks to a link at the website Feministe I read an article in Salon about a support group for families with cancer patients.  The group hosts not just the adults with the disease, but children as well.  The author of the piece, Mary Elizabeth Williams, presents a setting in which death and life become part of the routine, even when the deaths are gut-wrenching, such as the week three of her fellow group member died - bam!bam!bam! - leaving four children without a mother.  Not long after, Ms. Williams daughter, Bea, matter-of-factly told a friend's mother about the three deaths.  Ms. Williams writes:
[The] mother[] looked at Bea, and then me, and then back to Bea, in astonishment. “But you still … like … this club?” she asked her.
I understood the question, and the concern behind it. I had been struggling with it myself, especially because my own health has improved so much since we first began coming to the club. (I’m now on maintenance treatment, with another year to go.) Why are my kids still there? Why make them witness so much death, so much grief? Why put them, week after week, in a room with a bunch of kids whose parents are sick and, in some cases, dying?
But when that mother had asked Bea about it, my daughter just smiled brightly and said, “Oh, yeah. They have beanbag chairs and they give us popcorn.”
Ms. Williams continues:
Children don’t experience difficult events or grieve like we adults do. Fortunately, their club understands that. My daughters, who originally stipulated they would only join on the condition that, “We don’t have to sit around and talk about our feelings,” have check-in time each week if they do want to sit around and talk about their feelings, but the real healing takes a very different form. A few times a month, a local animal group brings in dogs for the kids to play with. On other weeks they do art and they throw parties and they hang out in their beanbag chairs and talk with each other about their favorite TV shows and somewhere in all of that, the most amazing thing of all happens. The sickness and death and uncertainty don’t go away. They’re there in the room all the time with these kids. But they’re there in a room with a group of loyal, loving friends.
I had asked Bea, after the day of the two dead mothers, if she still wanted to go to the club. I had been prepared for her to reconsider, but she answered resolutely that she still wanted to go. She also mentioned the popcorn again. Then she looked at her hands and said quietly, “It got me through your cancer.”
When I posed the same question to my 12-year-old daughter, Lucy, she too gave the same answer. Yes, of course she wanted to keep going. “It makes me feel normal,” she said. “It makes me a better friend.” It really does. When a classmate she hadn’t even been close to lost a parent to cancer last year, she instinctively reached out to the child. She didn’t make the kid talk about her feelings. She just sat with her at lunch, asked her about her locker. She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t awkward. Because she’d been there before. 
And she sums up, talking about the precious gift she's given her children in the midst of the sadness and pain:
I didn’t put this family in the path of death. I put us in the paths of Lisa and Ted and Mamie and Julia. And we made a choice to get tangled up with them, to love them and to let them love us. To sit in beanbag chairs and eat popcorn and paint pictures together and drag ourselves to Queens for funerals and miss them when they’re gone. To take the risk of being hurt, because what the hell else are we here for? What else is there in life but to show up for each other, week in and week out, whether we’re 8 or 80? I came to that club because I knew my kids needed to get support. And they have received it, beyond all expectations. But I never dreamed how much they would also wind up giving. I never imagined how much sorrow they and their friends would face, or how beautifully they would face it together. (italics added)
We can learn a lot from the ways we expose our children to the realities of life.  Death may not, after all, be the worst thing a family can experience.  It is far more natural than, say, the terror of abuse or abandonment, realities millions of children experience without the kind of support networks Ms. Williams' children live with. The fact is millions of children live with this reality, the reality of death as an intimate experience.  Whether from disease or hunger or war, our world is filled with children marked with the knowledge that all of us have a limited span on the Earth.  How we come to terms with that knowledge, how we help those we love and for whom we're responsible come to terms with that knowledge, makes everyone better, stronger people.  There are no short cuts, no hiding spaces, no covers that, when pulled over our heads, makes this particular monster disappear.

We can, however, make it far less of a monster by demonstrating the courage and, yes, wisdom to teach our children that death is real.  We can help them be better friends to those who have experienced loss by teaching them to sit and listen.  That popcorn and beanbag chairs don't disappear or cease to make life fun because we've experienced loss.

What gets us through, what gets our kids through, should be clear enough: one another.  Holding one another up, sitting and being there for one another without an agenda or a lesson or hollow words of comfort.  That there are kids who are learning this lesson in the midst of their sorrow and loss is a very good thing.

It might even be a bit of that transformation of the world about which I wrote.

Virtual Tin Cup

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