What our children learn when we say the final goodbye

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We’ve just gone through a season of goodbyes with the loss of family members on both sides of our family tree.

Since our kids were quite young the last time the family gathered for a funeral, these memorials marked the first time they were fully cognizant of the rituals and sentiments involved. Since children always bring curiosity to new experiences, their questions and observations led to some fascinating discussions that would ultimately deepen our celebration of two remarkable lives. Seeing death through their eyes also reminded us to approach each ending with the faith of a child.

Our children were privileged to know my maternal grandfather for many years. Many special visits were made to my grandparents’ lake cabin, where Great-Grandpa took them for rides in his motorboat and showed off his prized tomato plants growing next to the boathouse. He and my grandma joined us for Christmas celebrations, delighting in the chaos of the morning gift exchange and taking all of the hugs they could get.

We prepared the children for the fact that Great-Grandpa had chosen to be cremated, so we would see his urn during the funeral. This made perfect sense to them. Our family cat had recently died and after much family discussion we decided to cremate her remains to spread under her favorite tree “to help flowers grow.” Hearing favorite hymns sung during the service sparked discussion about what songs my husband and I would want sung at our funerals, and which each of the children might choose. The kids got to hear a wonderful history of their great-grandfather’s life, beginning with his going to school on horseback in central Montana, continuing with his military service as a B-17 pilot during World War II, then his family life with my grandmother and his many career achievements. We were awed and moved by the full military honors bestowed on him at his burial, including a gun salute, flag presentation and the playing of “Taps” by a lone trumpeter, which even in memory gives me chills.

We were glad our children were able to witness this honor and hear of his service to country, especially his willingness as a single man to fly extra combat missions in order to send other married members of his squadron home early to be with their families. Grandpa also served as a lifelong Rotarian and volunteered for Meals on Wheels.

A couple of months later, we gathered to celebrate the life of my husband’s uncle, the eldest of six children who emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines as a young professional to establish a new life and raise a family. Members of the Cabasco clan are numerous, close-knit and incredibly warm.

The celebration of “Tito” (Uncle) Dante’s life began with an open casket viewing, where displays of mourning were more overt. Family members were open in displaying their grief in familiar and tender ways: touching his face, kissing his forehead, and holding his hand as they said goodbye. Of course, our kids wondered why people were talking to his body in this way when his spirit was gone. We talked about the fact that even though we accept that a person’s spirit is with God, sometimes there is comfort for those left behind in saying goodbye to their physical form.

An accountant by day, Tito Dante was best known as a gifted musician, composing and playing the piano professionally as a second career for most of his life and serving his church for years as a volunteer in different musical capacities. He composed many musical works for the church, including a choral piece performed in his memory at his funeral.

Joy and sadness often intermingle as we grieve. Perhaps the most important parts of these memorials for our children were the many remembrances of family and friends that contained both chuckles and tears. The time together with extended family was precious, despite our reason for gathering. Through all of these interactions, death became a real part of the fabric of life for them. Conversations about what we might want for our funerals or whether we might want to be buried or cremated didn’t have the morbid overtone one might think they would. Instead, the practical aspects of death seemed accessible, tangible and up for discussion.

Our kids also came away from both funerals having heard about lives with legacies of service to others and strong family bonds, values that we hope will resonate in their own lives as they grow to adulthood. The fact that they know that loss will be an inevitable part of that journey may represent a loss of innocence, but it also serves to make us grateful for the time we have together building the memories that comprise a well-lived life.

Megan Blair-Cabasco is a Walla Walla writer and mother of three interesting children who inspire the wonder and humor that make this column possible.

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