Recently my dear friend Maggie passed away after succumbing to complications from a battle with cancer. When my husband and I decided to attend her celebration of life with our children, we got a few raised eyebrows because many believe this isn’t the place for kids. But I’m glad we brought them and here’s why.
First and foremost, Maggie’s event was truly a celebration. There was music and laughter, hot dogs, popcorn, an open bar and sports on television. Every wall was plastered with pictures of Maggie looking happy and vibrant. She’d designed her own musical playlist and it was blasting. Her request that people wear their favourite sports team’s jersey had been honoured by almost everyone in attendance. Speeches were heartfelt, gut-wrenching and hilarious. In fact, it seemed more like an open mic night than a funeral. Everyone was crying, but they were also laughing and smiling. Maggie adored children and knew many would be there to say goodbye, so she’d arranged for a craft table and a face painter, too.
I could tell as soon as we walked in that this was not what my kids were expecting. Heck, it wasn’t what I was expecting. I knew Maggie but had no idea her wishes extended to something so celebratory and full of life. At age eight and 11, my daughters’ experience with death has been remote. Maggie’s celebration was the first time they were included in any sort of ritual or event.
At first they didn’t know what to do because we had prepared them for something a little (okay, a lot) more somber. My husband and I told them there would be a lot of standing around while we talked to other adults. We told them people would be crying and it was important to be respectful. We prepared them for a short visit, assuming there was only so much of all of the above they could realistically manage.
We were wrong on all counts. Ten minutes in they were helping themselves to free refills of soda, playing hide and seek with other kids and eyeing up the dessert table. We stayed for close to three hours and said our goodbyes only after both girls had been made up to look like a butterfly and a tiger, respectively.
Under different circumstances I probably would have been horrified by my children’s failure to grasp the gravity of the situation, their failure to behave “appropriately.” But here it was appropriate because they were doing exactly what Maggie would have wanted them to do. So among her many wonderful legacies is the fact that she taught my kids what a celebration of life truly is; that when someone dies it’s okay to be sad, but it’s okay to be happy too, and to remember the time you did have.
Death can be a terrifying concept for children because as much as we think they “don’t really get it” most kids understand enough to suffer fear and anxiety at the thought of themselves or their parents dying. The idea that someone can disappear from your life forever is baffling even for adults. Maggie’s celebration helped to demystifying death for my kids because for the first time they looked at it through a different lens. Her celebration helped us talk about death in a way that wasn’t as scary, in a way that focused on life.
Admittedly, Maggie’s celebration is probably not the norm, and not every family will feel comfortable attending one with their kids. When deciding on this, experts caution against using age as a first consideration. Instead of asking are they old enough to attend? maybe what we should be asking is, am I ready to be honest about why we’re here? And, am I ready to answer their difficult questions about death?
It’s okay to want to minimize some of the cold hard truths with vague references to child-friendly concepts like angels and heaven, and with euphemisms like “gone to sleep,” but this doesn’t help children understand what really happened and what death really means. Kids usually know when we’re not telling the truth, or the whole truth, and simple, factual explanations about death, and sharing our own feelings of grief, can help remove some of the mystery and fear of the unknown. It also teaches kids that they can trust their parents to explain and guide them through life’s most difficult and confusing times. Including our kids in Maggie’s celebration was a teachable moment that built trust and opened the door for honest conversations about death.
My husband and I were hurting, and being able to grieve as a family and share memories with our kids is helping both of us heal. Maggie played a key role in the early days of our relationship and our kids have delighted in hearing the story of her helping to play matchmaker over and over again. That she eased our daughters into their first experience with death, using laughter and popcorn, is simply perfect.
If you need a little guidance when talking to your kids about death, the New York Times recently published a list of helpful books written for various ages, with various themes. You can find it here. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/27/books/review/tims-goodbye-steven-salerno.html