I come from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia - that region of Canada where people gather together (still) in kitchens, front rooms or parish halls for a night of music and dancing. “Ceilidhs” they’re called - a Scottish term. If you’ve ever been to one, you know. You never forget it. And so, we named our new golden pup, “Calee”, because she was as joy-full as a ceilidh! That was five years ago. Five months ago, she was hit by a woman driving her car too fast down our country road. She died.
“Why Mama?” sobbed my ten year old daughter. “Why did it have to happen? ”
Now, my daughter was no stranger to death. Four years earlier, our 14 year old German Shepherd, Ben, died. Six months later, our 14 year old Siamese cat, Tara, died.
The loss of a pet is often the first opportunity to teach children about death. The way children deal with death depends in large part on how well the parents have settled their own feelings about death.
I grew up in a small French Catholic community on Cape Breton Island. Most of the village people lived out their lives in or near the village where they were born. They saw each other grow up, live and die. So, when someone died, everyone knew what was to be done. Everyone knew their part in the rituals of grief.
This is not the way of our more urban society. Dying has been turned over to institutions. Rather than being seen as a normal part of life, death often means crisis. Arrangements must be finalized; people need to be contacted; decisions made; and all as soon as possible.
We are a society reluctant to talk about death. We tell ourselves that death is a long way off and we’ll deal with it when the time comes. We put off planning for death. When people die without a will, the result is unnecessary stress for families.
What would it take to put your affairs in order?
The first step would be to contact an attorney about estate planning; finalize your will and avoid estate probate. Let your family have access to your safety deposit box at the bank. Let them know where legal and financial records are kept. You could even have them meet your lawyer when the final will is notarized.
As a parent, I believe we have an opportunity-and more importantly, a responsibility-to teach our children how to die with integrity. Leave a written description of your wishes for your funeral. Have you ever taken the time to think through what you wanted to have happen at your funeral? The music you would like played? The person you would want to speak about you? The minister you would entrust with the task of this final ritual of farewell? Who will write your newspaper obituary? Cremation or embalming and a casket? Scattering your ashes? Where? Or, if not, having remains in a cemetery plot?
Why not ask your spouse and family what they need?
It seems to me, often, we treat the funeral as the end point. Mourning, however, goes on for such a long time after the funeral. But we tell ourselves that friends must get on with their lives and we don’t want to burden them with our grief. And yet, it is at these very times that we need kindness and empathy the most.
What if we wrote personal notes, to be mailed after we died? What if we arranged to have flowers sent to our spouse, children and close friends a year after our own death?
I imagine my own daughter - dreading the first anniversary of her mom’s death - answering the door and being handed a beautiful bouquet of white roses and a note that reads: “Hi Mouse! Remember what I always told you? You won’t see me but I will be will be with you always. I love you still, as big as the sky. Mama”.
My wedding photographer once told me the story of how she kept a bit of her dad with her after he died. She and her dad had been estranged for years. But - as is often the way - when he lay dying in his hospital bed, she never left his side. Because words had often been difficult for them, she found herself massaging his hands with essential oils and creams. Pouring her self and her love into his heart.
It came to her one day….the idea. She took a sheet of paper, placed her hand on it and drew around her hand and fingers with her lipstick. Then she gave the lipstick to her dad. He placed his hand on top of the outline of his daughter’s smaller hand and he also drew around his hand and fingers with the lipstick.
The overlapping of two hands, two lives, and two hearts. I love this story. Imagine your son receiving a framed print of such a moment, a year after your death?
“So”, I reply to my daughter, who clings to me the next morning after Calee’s death, “it had to happen Mouse ( my nickname for her), because it is the way of all living things. Calee came to teach us how to love Gods’ creatures. I guess she left when her job here on earth was done. We sure will miss her huh?”
She nods her head and in between sobs, cries “It hurts, Mama!”
Yes it does.
Calee, Ben, Tara, Oma, and someday her dad and me…..her sister…..her….it is the way of all living things….and now she knows.