Monday, August 11, 2008

Do you hem & haw or give it to 'em straight?

For being a 6 year old, Allie has a pretty good handle on the intellectual part of death - she has said goodbye to two dogs and a grandfather. She knows that when a person or animal stops breathing they die. She knows that her dogs and her grandpa and not alive, but they are alive in her heart because she can think about them and look at pictures of them.

She also decided that even though she thinks there is a doggie heaven and people heaven, if Allie knows them all they can all be in the same heaven.

But until yesterday, she didn't know anything about what happened to the bodies or what a cemetery was.

Yesterday was the unveiling of my father-in-law, Allie's grandfather. He died last August and at that time, my hubby and I made the decision not to have Allie at the funeral - it was her second week of Kindergarten and we felt it more important that her routine stay the same. Or maybe we didn't want to deal with it? In any event, she stayed in school and didn't come. But we decided it was appropriate for her to come to the unveiling.

Now, what is an unveiling? The unveiling is a ceremony that dedicates a grave monument erected for someone who passed away twelves months earlier. The service is called "unveiling" because in America the tombstone is covered with a cloth which is removed by the family during the ceremony. There is no religious obligation to hold an unveiling ceremony, but the ritual became popular toward the end of the 19th century in America and Western Europe and has become an accepted and meaningful practice. In addition to dedicating the grave monument, the unveiling gives those in mourning an opportunity to commemorate the deceased.

So, when we woke up Sunday morning Allie asked me her usual question of what we were going to do today. I told her we were going to hang out at home and play and then we were going to get her haircut before the first day of school and then we were going to have a little service to remember Grandpa - I told her it was called an unveiling. I told her we were going to a cemetery and that her favorite Rabbi would be there to do a service and its just a time for us to be together with our family and some friends and remember Grandpa. In her infinite wisdom she said she remembers Grandpa and was mostly concerned about how long the service was because "lusually (and no, that isn't a typo!) I'm not that into services because I have to be quiet and sit still for too long". I told her that it was only going to be a short service (I'll address the other issue of sometimes we have to sit and be quiet longer than we would like at another time) and that even though she remembers Grandpa, this is a tradition in the Jewish religion and its nice to remember Grandpa together.

As a typical 6 year old, she absorbed the information matter-of-factly and that was it. But I have to be honest with you, I didn't tell her what a cemetery was. I didn't tell her bodies were buried there. I didn't tell her after Grandpa died he was buried. I guess as a parent I don't have all the answers - but I didn't even know how I would have explained if he is buried underground how come I told her he was in heaven above us. I didn't want her to ask where her other dogs were buried - I didn't want to tell her no, they were taken by the Animal Control and cremated with other dogs. No, I couldn't go there with her.

So, we got to the cemetery - at 4pm in 110 degree heat in Arizona - and in the middle of the service , Allie asks out loud with appropriate genuine curiosity, why does that "thing" say Grandpa's name and what is under there. Thank god for our rabbi. She came over to Allie and bent down to her level and gave her the most simple and beautiful explanation: "Allie, when your Grandpa died we buried him in the ground to keep his body safe, but his personality and soul go up to heaven. And this beautiful sign tells us where his body is so we know where to find him when we want to come and say hello to him. " And as any brilliant communicator knows, if a child asks nothing more, a child doesn't need or isn't ready for more information. So, that was the end of the conversation. And Allie picked up a rock and went up with the rest of our family and friends to place a stone on the headstone to tell her Grandpa she was there.

Perhaps when she asks how a baby gets into a Mommy's belly I won't have to defer to the rabbi and I will be able to answer that question myself. I think I have realized its adults who attach so much meaning to everything and kids wants the facts, just the facts. . .

How do you handle those hard questions that kids have? Do you run from the answers and hem and haw, or do you answer them straight on (which I hope to do next time!)?

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Lis Garrett said...

I've always thought it best not to skirt around the issue too much but only divulge as much as you think they can handle. Your rabbi's answer was perfect!

My Vision said...

I havent had that quite yet because the girls are so little but in life I prefer the straight up method so I hope to be able to be that way with my kids. Don't know how that will work though yet. I think you handled the situation very well. Sorry to hear about his passing.