When a child dies.

I have read a lot this week about what happens when a child dies, so this week I am sharing with you my musings.

As a Funeral Director, I was called upon at times to hold lifeless children in my hands, not all babies.. some a few months, a few years.. some nearing adulthood. I sat with many parents who were faced with immeasurable loss. Some who sought to understand and wanted as much information as i could provide. Some who just wanted me to see their child, really see them, thereby confirming to the parents they really did have a child in the first place. Some parents wanted my help in dressing their children, some wanted it done for them. Some wanted foot prints and finger prints and hand casts… some wanted photos or any strands of hair i could find. Anyone working in that space who tells you it is not difficult is either lying or should find a new job. But as hard as it is, what keeps you going is the knowledge that it is so much harder for them and all you can hope to do is assist in their journey for that little moment in time, help them through just one part of their now life long healing.

No one expects to loose a child. People often think that pregnancy loss and death in childbirth have now been relegated to third world problems, that the advent of modern medicine has meant that middle class, western women don’t have to worry about such things. Its not true. You can follow all the rules, take all the classes, keep all the appointments, do your exercise, watch what you eat and look after yourself entirely, and still suffer the death of a child. Its much more common than people think.

Sometimes the loss of a child happens when you think that the danger must have passed. They start to grow into mini adults, the years of immature vulnerability pass by and you grow comfortably into family life… and then out of the blue one mistake, bad decision or error of judgement – or that of another, and lives are cut tragically short. It’s not always drugs and alcohol, motor vehicles or predators, bullies or un-diagnosed mental distress….  it can be well intentioned, hurrying home from a party or weekend job, lending a hand on the farm, helping out a mate or a total stranger….. or otherwise while simply going about ones daily life.

There’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no fool-proof way of keeping our children safe. No amount of perfect parenting – if there ever was such a thing – is truly the answer. We can nurture them from babies, provide wholesome loving care, we can give our children all of the social and emotional tools in our arsenal (and a few others that we learn along the way), we can reinforce how much we are there for them, we can promise they can call no matter what situation they get into, we can teach them good judgement and to recognise risk factors, not to let others get their drinks and not to go along with a crowd…. in the end, none of that may matter.

When I was fourteen one of my very good friends committed suicide. She didn’t mean to. She had such a hard childhood, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a father who wasn’t interested in her or her wayward behavior. I knew her when she came to live with her grandparents. I was 14, she was 15, and she has already suffered incredible hardship, homelessness, abuse, loss and rejection. She abused alcohol and drugs. She clung to boyfriends for the love and care she missed as a child. I see it all now so clearly.  When her latest relationship came to an end in a desperate bid for attention she swallowed about 160 gout pills which thinned her blood and she spent the next three days in and out of consciousness. I’d been with her only a day or two before hand and stopped her taking pills that day, not old enough or wise enough to realise she’d do it again. We spent the rest of the day sitting in her Granddad’s car smoking and singing our hearts out to an old Meatloaf cassette tape. When she died it was officially ‘death by miss-adventure’, she said she didn’t want to die.

Why. It’s perhaps the question, the universal question, that we all ask of no one in particular at least once in our lives. Why?….. No matter our suffering or cross to bear, we are all united in the fact that we as humans do in fact suffer. We all feel loss, sometimes more keenly than others, but no one is immune. The difference when it comes to the death of a child is that when a baby or young person dies, it is considered particularly cruel. Unfathomable. Against the natural order. Parents are not supposed to bury their children, that is supposed to be the other way around. There is a level of tragedy that exists in the death of a child that is hard to find elsewhere. Society doesn’t consider that the young should, or will, die. When an elderly person dies it can sometimes be seen as the opposite. How cruel they had to live as long as they did with their pain and physical suffering. What a blessing their suffering is over. Perhaps this reinforces the horror that greets the death of children.

Eventually ‘why’ gives way to an understanding of just what is. At some point you begin to see the beautiful things again. A rainbow or a sunset…. you hear a song that reminds you of that person and instead of crying you find yourself contemplating a good memory. In among the tears, happiness slowly creeps back. But with the death of a child there is added grief to work through. It is the grief of all the memories that you will not make. The milestones you will not celebrate. The moments you will never be afforded. The hugs you will not share. The tears you will not wipe. The smiles and the million little gestures which you will only ever long for. You don’t just grieve for a child, you grieve for the life they will not live and all that you miss out on because of it.

While I was reading this week about the death of various children and how the families coped with the loss I remembered this poem that i came across years ago.  I don’t know it’s story. I don’t know where I first found it or who brought it to my attention. But it speaks of the loss of a child, it speaks of how that family made their peace. Peace, that really is all we can strive for in the moments of grieving. I have often said as a Funeral Director my job was to help people make memories, so that in weeks, months, years to come they were able to look back at the tragic and have a little peace in the knowledge that the time was made a little gentler than it otherwise might have been.

Bertha’s Burial

Died, in Williamsburg, Mass., Feb. 5, Bertha Sampson, daughter of Louisa and Henry James, 6 years, 9 months. A lovely child of unusual promise, and the youngest of three beautiful daughters.

Cold over earth
Lay a shroud of white,
But heaven above
Arched blue and bright,
And the setting sun,
With a last fond ray
Clasped the casket white
Where Bertha lay.

The peaceful hands
We folded down,
Of lilies we wove her
Cross and crown,
And a flower-strung harp,
That our hearts might hold
A symbol fair
Of her harp of gold.

The blossoms they brought
In fragrance fell, –
Violet and rose,
Pale immortelle, –
But never a bud
So bright and fair
As the white-faced darling
Slumbering there.

Our bowed hearts wept
Over the child,
But in new-born beauty
Bertha smiled –
The smile that comes
With a soul’s release,
While her pale hands grasped
The lilies of peace.

And we know she had joined
Those “waiting outside”
Revealed to her vision
When, “Mother,” she cried,
“Oh Mother, just look
Through the window and see,
For I think that outside
They are waiting for me.”

To the tomb we bore
Both cross and crown,
And the harp we laid,
With Bertha, down,
But the cross still blooms –
For a promise is kept –
The crown is worn
And the harp is swept.

Williamsburg, Mass., February 1874

‘Coco’ and the alternative lesson it offers us.

A little while ago we shared a trailer to a kid’s movie, called ‘Coco’. Anything that deals with death in a positive way for children must be a good thing… right? Well, in this case it was very right.

On New Years Days my family and I went to see ‘Coco’. Dedicated as we were, we arrived at the movie theatre in Hobart at 9.10am and we were the only ones there. I’m not sure about you, but going to see a movie in an empty theatre does not provide me with complete confidence that this movie is worth the money paid to watch it!

By the time we left, I was feeling quite glad to have had our own private viewing.

‘Coco’ is the story of a boy whose family has a generations old hatred of music and he has music in his heart. It is where he finds his true happiness. In desperation he finds himself in the tomb of his hero and from there plummeted into the land of the dead on the famous night of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Now a lot of people recognise the so called ‘sugar skulls’ and enjoy the dress up and ‘spooky’ elements of the day of the dead, but a little like Halloween (the origins of which lay in the ancient Pagan festival of Samhain) the true meaning seems to have been lost somewhere along the years. ‘Coco’ attempts – successfully so – to explain to it’s audience with a childlike wonder and spectacle, the meaning and purpose of one of the world’s most famous death related celebrations.

The theme through this movie is family, love and connectedness, care and concern, tradition and loyalty even through the tough times. Especially through the tough times. But it also shows that ultimately, traditions can change and be altered to fit a changing world and a growing family without destroying the sense of toughness which lies at the heart of family.

Perhaps the most prolific point of the film is about the dead, our ancestors – all of those who have come before us and paved the way for the life and the family we have today. In ‘Coco’, ancestors are not just a distant memory they are a part of the family’s every day life and they believe that if you don’t remember your ancestors they are lost to you forever, along with their stories and history. While the dead are remembered in the hearts and minds of the living they are never too far away and on the night of Dia de los Muertos if you place a photo of them in the family home or on their grave, that is the night they can cross over and be with their living once more. Marigold flowers are spread as the path they will follow home and offerings and tributes are left for them as well to take with them when they return to the land of the dead.

Now obviously as a kid’s movie, this is not a detailed or in-depth explanation, but it serves more than one important purpose. Firstly, in terms of understanding culture and religion this movie gets people thinking – kids included – it raises the awareness that there’s something more to this day of the dead stuff beyond funky face paint, Frida Kahlo dress up and sugar cookies.

But there’s an even more important message in this film I feel. On several occasions in this film the dead are much more afraid of the living than the living are of the dead. That’s important. The little alive boy who finds himself in the land of the dead is a scarier figure to the dead than all the skeletons are to him. No matter the age of the child – or adult – watching this film, the message that the dead are not scary is clear. Even if all the nuances of the ritual and religion are lost on people, the idea that you don’t need to be afraid of the dead is present and repeated.

Why is that important?

Simply, as we are moving away from commercial funeral homes and placing the care of our dead back in the sacred hands of the family and friend that have loved that person in life, the message that the dead are not a thing to fear is vital. The dead are not scary. They are not dangerous. They are not in need of professional assistance and procedures. They are the vessel that carried your loved one through life and instead of fear we can approach our dead with reverence. With kindness. With care. With a desire to honour them in death as we respected them in life. We can own that journey and those traditions ourselves, as a family and as a community. We can remove the stigma of the dead being dirty, scary, hazardous and unclean return to a truly traditional way of dealing with our dead with authenticity and honesty as part of our journey of healing from grief and bereavement. As a bonus to this, you will also find that you not only come out the other side of this journey with a much more whole and peaceful bereavement, but you also will not be presented with a $10,000 bill at the end of it either.

Family lead funerals.

It starts with teaching people that the dead are not scary.

See the trailer here –