Sunday, January 18, 2009

GRIEF FROM THREE FEET


In January of 1999 I penned an article that was published in one of North America’s funeral service professional journals – Alliance Magazine. After re-visiting this piece, I realized that not only has my learning curve and life come a long way but also the life of the child that I wrote about. Today, this child “SETH” would be about 16-17 years old. It often crosses my mind of where might this boy now be and what type of young man may he have become? Something that is clear is that the same grief that Seth felt is the same grief that many of us today experience. With grief, everything is magnified, seems bigger, endless, larger and more difficult to overcome. There is hope and there is a tomorrow and you will overcome the obstacles that seem too large to move on your own. My hope is that this article touches your life in some small way.--Fred


Although many children may recognize the rituals of a funeral, most do not fully understand what death is, and in many instances, they do not express themselves outwardly. As adults we sometimes fell that the emotions of children do not run as deep as ours, nor can what they experience be compared to the emotions of adults. Therefore we often times forget about children during the funeral process.

I was inspired to write “Grief From Three Feet” when I came in contact with a small boy I met one evening some time ago at the funeral home.
As the family began to enter the funeral home for the initial private family viewing, I could literally feel the tension in the air. I greeted them in the same manner as I customarily do with grieving families, trying to show warmth, kindness and compassion.
And yet, this time felt different to me. As I spoke with the deceased’s wife and other family members, I noticed one particular child who walked along side of his mother. He was a nice-looking child, seemed well-behaved and well groomed.
I couldn’t help but notice the fashion in which this child was clinging to his mother. It was as if he was never going to turn loose. Not only were his tiny delicate hands shaking, his small body was also shaking and trembling in what I could perceive as nothing more than passionate fear.
One hand gripped tight to a piece of the material of his mother’s dress, while the other one was wrapped around her body. I closely observed as he fought to keep his face hidden against his mother’s body. He refused to look at anyone in the room.
As his mother moved around the room, he walked along side her, trying to keep pace with his mothers much larger footsteps. His tiny feet stumbled across the carpet, and his balance became unstable for a split second, but he was able to regain his stability. Still, it was obvious this child was in fear.
When he did choose to show a portion of his face, his pupils looked as though they were dilated to their largest. I smiled and tried to initiate conversation with this youngster. He quickly turned from me, yet looked back at me from time to time. As time passed and all of the family had gathered, I slowly escorted the family toward the reposing room where the remains of this husband and father were displayed.
Later that evening when the crowd began to dwindle, I found myself seated in the entrance of the funeral home thinking of how my feet ached and how tired I was. Alongside of where I was seated was an empty chair. I couldn’t help but notice this same young boy as he edged himself closer to the empty chair and sat down beside of me. I offered him a piece of candy, and he eagerly accepted. As he slowly unwrapped the candy, I asked him what his name was. He replied softly, “Seth.”
I said, “Seth how old are you?” He responded by holding up five fingers on one hand and one finger on the other hand and said, “Six.” After a long pause, he looked at me with quite different looking eyes than what I had seen earlier. They now appeared to be droopy, puffy, and full of genuine grief and sadness.

He looked at me and said with his soft high pitched voice, “Mister, why is my daddy in that coffin in there?” Before I could even process the first question, he followed up with a second one, “Why did my daddy leave me? Mommy said daddy left us.”
I literally stared at him and sat motionless. I felt temporarily paralyzed and dumbfounded, and I did not know how I should respond. As I became momentarily saddened myself, I looked at him and in the back of my mind; I tried to remember any psychological “words of wisdom” from the old college days. But it seemed the old memory back was empty.
I did however, remember that children around the ages of 4-7 were very inquisitive about death, but really did not understand it. At that precise point in time, I was not too sure I understood death either. I was not even sure I knew what I was doing or emotionally feeling myself. Nevertheless, I had to respond to this child. After all, I had initiated the conversation with him, and he was waiting on a response.
After a long pause, I looked at him and said, “Seth, your daddy did not leave you because he wanted to. He left because he had no choice. His body was real sick and he could not stay with us any longer.” I also told him that his daddy would like him to take care of his mommy and make sure that he would do everything his daddy would have done. I told him that he was now the man of the family and would have to look over his younger brother and mommy.
After a brief pause, he looked at me, smiled and said, “Daddy always called me his little man, guess I really am, huh?” I looked over at him and replied “Yes you are.” I thought to myself “I sure am glad that conversation is over.” Then I looked for an excuse I I better check to make sure there is plenty of coffee in the lounge) to run from this encounter and any additional difficult questions. Before I could get up out of my chair, however, he continued to ask more questions such as, “Why is everything so big here?”

For a second he lost me. I didn’t quite follow what he meant, but after a moment, I thought “I guess everything does look big to him for he is no taller than about three feet.”
From our conversation, I quickly learned that I had a smart boy on my hands, and I had better be on my toes. I also realized he was one of those children who knew if someone was trying to fool him. I looked at him and tried to respond. Then he said, “when I came here tonight with my mommy to see my daddy, I seen the front doors. They were so big and heavy, and when we came inside, the rooms were so big. The ceilings are so high, and the chairs are so big.”
He continued, “Sure is a big place you have here, mister.” I again smiled and said, “Yes, I guess it is.” That night after going home, I replayed the events of the evening and the conversation that I had with this youngster. I came to the realization that we, as funeral service practitioners, generally provide all of our services based entirely on adult themes. I also realized that night that we need to re-evaluate some of our practices and develop a program within our firms that focus more on the children.
Some firms offer the coloring books that explain death and the funeral process to the child. This practice is a good first step. Even so, a grief program designed on a personal level for children should be developed and incorporated into firm’s programs. After all, children are the future.

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