Death: A Child’s Perspective
Last November, we learned that my father-in-law had a degenerative lung condition, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and would likely have six months to live. Not an easy thing for any family to hear. For the past several months, it has been even more difficult to watch his decline. At each visit we observed him becoming weaker and more fragile – the man we knew slowly slipping away. He passed peacefully in the early morning hours of March 21. His wife, two sons and daughter were with him.
My father-in-law was an epic figure; a physician, a father, a husband, and a grandfather. He loved his profession, and absolutely adored his patients – he knew them all and cared for generations of families during his 50+ years in practice. He delighted in his family – particularly his five grandchildren. He had an innately curious nature, which led him on adventures around the globe – his only regret that he never made it to Bali. He was a connoisseur of fine wine and food, Italian and German opera, and painting and sculpture. He was also the steward of family traditions; the Thanksgiving meal was always the same – no variations. Father’s Day was always celebrated at his home – regardless of what was happening, we had to make the four hour drive to his home in New Hampshire to celebrate. Every July 4th we sat for hours on the parking lot known as I-95 to get to their blow-out Independence Day party – complete with fireworks.
During the past few months, my husband, “J”, naturally wanted to spend as much time with his dad as possible. They spent a lot of time reminiscing about “J’s” childhood, people they knew, places they visited, and long-dead family members. I suppose this is part of the grieving process and I’m grateful that they had this time together and that there was nothing between them left unsaid. It’s hard to watch your husband grieve – to be so raw and vulnerable. You want to be able to offer some comfort and refuge, but it’s such a personal process that there’s nothing really you can do but just be there and listen.
Amid all of this, our son, “A” was very present. At ten, he’s on the cusp of being able to understand that death is final (as in: we won’t be seeing Grandpa again), yet still has the very child-like ability to live perfectly in the moment where neither the past nor the future matter. At each visit since November, he’s observed the progression of my father-in-law’s illness – in the beginning, moving more slowly and occasionally needing oxygen, to not being able to walk more than 30 feet and requiring oxygen most of the time. At our final family visit at the end of February, he was confined to a chair and tethered to an oxygen tank. It was clear to him that his grandfather was very ill.
When we knew the end was near and “J” was making weekly trips to his parents’ home, we felt that we needed to be very honest with our son about the situation. As “J” packed his case to be at his father’s side two weeks ago, we gently explained to “A” that, “Grandpa is very, very sick. His lungs can no longer take in the air that he needs to live. He is not going to get better.” He looked at me with his big, blue eyes, now shiny and wet with tears. I asked if he understood what I was saying, and he nodded as the tears spilled over onto his cheeks. I just held him quietly. Sometimes there is just nothing else to do.
The next day, after “J” called to tell me that his father was gone, I told “A” that his grandpa had passed away. We’re not a religious family, so the prayers that bring comfort to many people just didn’t work for us. Instead, we talked about how much Grandpa had loved him and that he was so proud of him. We talked about all the things that Grandpa enjoyed and how, now, when we do those things, like travel, eat really good food, and listen to beautiful music, we are honoring Grandpa. We talked about our family traditions and how we are celebrating Grandpa’s life every time we get together as a family. We talked about what a wonderful, long, happy life Grandpa had and that he was surrounded by love every minute of his life, even at the very end. I hope I said the right thing, did the right thing…it’s just so hard to know what’s “right” or “wrong” in this situation, but it felt right in the moment – and it feels right now.
The other day, “A” and I were having our morning chat and we were talking about Grandpa. I asked him what he thought happened after you die. He didn’t skip a beat, “I think that you get born again. It’s the circle of life.” Ok, little Buddha, I’m going to embrace your philosophy on this. I’d like to think my father-in-law will get to Bali after all.