For the second time in the past few years, the father of one of my youngest son’s friends has died. Last time it was very sudden and quick; the dad caught a virulent bug and died within a week or so. This time, it has been a long, sad, protracted illness and death, one that has shadowed my son’s friend since the day she was born nearly 12 years ago.
My own family is no stranger to death. Between the loss of my infant son – the brother my children know they had but never met – and my own mother’s quite sudden and horrific death from lung cancer nearly eight years ago, my children know that death has been at our door.
This is a little different. This is farther away, not quite so raw, without the immediate impact in our own home. But as I was taking the train into the office this morning, I was thinking about how my children, especially my youngest, might be feeling anyway. It occurred to me that it is pretty scary to know now two families where the dad has died young. It’s not just an aberration anymore – it’s a possibility.
My children know that they have two parents who adore them, and a safe home in which to reside and thrash about and misbehave and do their homework and have sleepovers and have meals together and buy new clothes and read books and do their chores and live their young lives in relative safety and under the umbrella of deep, abiding love.
But the loss of another parent in our community signals that all may not always be this way. And my son knows that his friend’s house has not been like ours – she has been living with a dad who has been in a wheelchair for years, and a dad who couldn’t really talk or communicate with her friends, and in a house where there was always the possibility of something going horribly wrong on a minute’s notice.
How do we comfort our children while at the same time be realistic about the world around them?
My mother’s parents both died, tragically, when my mother was quite young. Her father died when she was two-years-old, before she could cement any memories of him in her head. Her mother was ill for my mother’s whole childhood, finally succumbing to kidney failure when my mother was only 13. Many years later, when I was already a young adult, my mother told me that she had, sadly, lost the sound of her mother’s voice in her head. To this day, I visit the recesses of my brain to hear both my mother and my paternal grandmother’s voices to make sure they are still residing in there.
So I was raised by a parentless mother. And it was only when I became an adult myself could I begin to understand the fallout from that loss, and the impact it had on my sister and me when my mother became a mother herself, with no roadmap for parenting.
There are now many books, many studies, and much understanding in the world of psychology around early parental loss. But none of that was available to help my mother, and her ultimate way of coping was to run away from her problems – her family – when it became too hard. She deserted us, the way she herself was deserted as a child.
So I know about loss, and desertion, and the fallout from not having a parent around as a young teen. I know a little about what our young friend will be facing. I know about pain. And my instinct is to shield my own precious children from this to the best of my ability.
But reality can have a different plan.
I will talk with my kids about this loss. About the unbelievable courage and fortitude the mom, who is also my friend, has shown all these years, while dealing with the marriage and life she had not expected or counted on. About the incredible strength of the community in which we live, which has showered this family with support for years, in the form of not only meals being delivered, but sustenance in every way imaginable. My friend calls those who have been there for her family her the “It Takes A Village People."
I will tell my kids that their dad and I do everything we can to provide them with a healthy and happy home. But stuff happens. People get sick. People die. And we have to live with that reality too.
So we need to celebrate the good stuff – like bat mitzvahs and soccer games and trips to the beach and visits with our grandparents and candy and chocolate and yummy Shabbat dinners and friendship and love. And we have to be prepared for the bad stuff, which isn’t here today, but could be here tomorrow.
Ultimately, death reaches all of us. It’s especially terrible when it takes a parent away from a young child, and that child then has the rest of his or her life to grapple with and recover from that loss. I know that the friends who lost their parents at a young age and are now raising children themselves tend to think about “the number” – at what age can they die and be satisfied that they are leaving their kids whole?
I actually have two numbers – 42 and 68. My mother’s mother was 42 when she died. My mother was 42 when she left. And I was almost 42 when my mother died. When I finally reached 42, I felt like I had rounded the corner for tragedy, and that it would be smooth sailing for a while. That is, until, knock on wood, I reach 68, which is how old my mother was when she died.
My hope is that my kids’ number will be way up in the 80s or even 90s, but who knows. All I can do is comfort them, tuck them in when they let me, kiss their heads and hope that our lives will continue to offer the bounties we enjoy. And celebrate the good, because it is there to sustain us when the bad comes knocking again.
(and as a postscript to this story, when I told my 10-year-old son this afternoon that his friend’s dad had died, he was shocked, and then he said, slowly and quite wisely, “Maybe E. should go over to C.’s and talk with her.” E. is the friend whose dad died a couple of years ago – he realized immediately the power of being able to share experience and offer comfort. He is my empath.)
photo by EuroMagic via Flickr