My Great Aunt Charlotte died today.
Great as defined by the family tree. Great as defined by humanity.
When is the right time to explain death to your kids? I thought about it for a long time over the last 6-8 months. I’m pretty lucky to have lots of older people in and around my family in relative good health. In other words, I have been very fortunate to have come this far in my own life with limited death around me.
I think the first indication that we were getting close to having the conversation was when Julianna asked a while ago what happened to mosquitoes or bees when they got “squashed”. It was the first time that either of them showed any sign of understanding that there’s another “state” beyond what they can see. It wasn’t long after when the dots started to connect. If bugs’ lives can end, can people stop living too?
When I was a kid, my parents, sister and I would go to my Grandmother and Grandfather’s house every Sunday afternoon. The house was a 2-family house. Grandma and Grandpa lived in the main unit and [Great] Aunt Charlotte lived in the other. Over the years, these visits usually involved greetings, some play time, a meal with some combination of my Grandparents’ kids, my 1st cousins, Aunt Charlotte, and various guests, more playing, dialing up Prodigy, watching the Red Sox, playing outside, losing a ball over the neighbor’s fence and never getting it because of a mysterious scary dog…and one other thing: I am pretty sure that about 100% of the visits involved some sort of craft or project over in Aunt Charlotte’s house. Every time. She always had something prepared for the kids. She was always ready for us. She never had kids of her own and I suspect that my father, his two brothers, and his sister would agree with me, my sister, and my 5 first cousins that Charlotte always treated us like we were all her kids.
The girls (Julianna more than Chloe) will occasionally ask about death. “Daddy, when are you going to be dead?” I think they are starting to understand some of the implications and my wife and I have spent a lot of time reinforcing that even if we aren’t physically able to see, hug, or play with that person anymore, it doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be alive in our hearts; in our minds. I genuinely believe that it makes sense to them. I also believe that its an understandably confusing concept.
Not too long ago, during a conversation with Julianna that revolved around her trying to figure out how many birthdays someone can have she said, “Daddy, what happens when Great Grandpa Abe (Aunt Charlotte’s older brother) turns 100?” I know exactly what’s she asking. She’s learning about numbers and is trying to wrap her mind around life and setting expectations. My answer was something like, “Well, each year on your birthday your age goes up by 1.” My wife and I both typically then redirect into something that focuses more on life then on death.
Chloe often just listens but doesn’t have much to say on the matter. She is perhaps too young to understand the impact so she just lets it soak in. Recently we planned a trip to New York to visit my wife’s Grandmother. Julianna asked my wife, “Mommy, does Great Grandma Minnie live with Great Grandpa Joey?” “No.” “Why not?” “Great Grandpa Joey isn’t living anymore.” “So he’s dead?” “Yes but he was a wonderful man and he lives in my heart.” Unfortunately, neither my kids nor I ever had the chance to meet him but Julianna followed up with one of her more touching responses as her eyes welled up: “But I miss him.”
Like many people with higher ages, she certainly had her share of health problems but she was probably the most vibrant, full-of-life person I’ve known, literally right up until the end. I almost never witnessed her doing anything other than smiling, for my entire life. I mean, who is that happy for that much time?
Aunt Charlotte recently became seriously ill. About one and half weeks ago she was taken to the hospital. Just a few days ago my sister and I went to go visit her in the hospital. We knew things weren’t good and that she was in an incredible amount of pain and discomfort. My wife asked the girls to paint pictures so I could bring them to her because painting was one of Charlotte’s biggest passions. The girls got right to work. My sister’s kids did the same.
My sister and I got to the hospital and Charlotte was asleep but clearly not comfortable. Two of my cousins were also there. The four of us stood there for a while letting her sleep. We all thought that waking her up so she knew we were there was a good idea. A nurse helped wake her up. She slowly made eye contact with each of us. We told her that the kids’ had made pictures for her. I went and got the pictures and held them up so she could get a good look. In perfect Aunt Charlotte form, she gave us that ear-to-ear, full-of-life, you just won a million dollars smile. For that moment, it was literally perfect. She almost immediately fell back asleep.
When we sat down with the girls tonight, my wife and I decided that we’d just tell the girls the truth. They listened as we told them that Great Aunt Charlotte had died. They listened as we told them that she absolutely loved the pictures they had painted. We told them that even though we wouldn’t be seeing her at family gatherings anymore, we’d still have her in our hearts and in our minds and memories. She’d always be with us as long as we shared stories and laughed about all the great times we were lucky enough to spend with her. Following my wife’s lead, they both pantomimed locking thoughts away.
Chloe asked, “Daddy, how did she die? Did her heart stop?”
Girls, its far less important how she died.
What’s most important is to always remember how she lived.