Liam and his existentialist mindjob

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Liam asked me the most brilliant question yesterday. As I slipped on my heels I leaned over and explained to him that his grandmother and dad were going to be sad today and that he may see them cry. He knew why as Chris and I've had the Second Biggest Talk with him, the talk about death and dying which rightfully precedes the discussion of birds and bees. (Which we haven't had yet. We may be mourning me when we do.)

I told him that we were mourning the death of his great-grandfather.

"What is mourning?" he asked.

"Mourning is when we cry and are upset because we lost someone or something. After we lose someone, we're sad and that's called mourning." 

"Oh." I thought we were finished and went to reach for my earrings when he figuratively socked me in the gut:

"Why do people mourn? What are they mourning?"

I was overcome by all the ways I could answer this. People mourn a loved one's company. They mourn the guiding presence lost with an elderly person and the loss of potential with a young person. We mourn because we miss a person, for sure. Because maybe we worry about the state of their soul in the afterlife: were they welcomed into the pearly gates to the sound of a thousand angels singing, were they told "Well done, my good and faithful servant?" Or are they sitting in some sort of waiting room purgatory worse than that of a doctor's office? Or ... what if they believed in nothing? That's something about which I worry, depending on whom we're mourning.

I think there's another, larger reason for why we mourn. We're never more aware of our own mortality than when standing next to a casket paying our last respects.

Ten years ago I was one of "the grandkids." My mom and her brothers and sisters were "the kids." My grandparents were simply "Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa." And then they passed away and we all climbed one step up on this giant generational staircase. My mom and her brothers and sisters are now the "grandmas and grandpas." My cousins and me are now "the kids." My own children, all the great-grandchildren, are now "the grandkids." We'll all take another step up again, and again, inevitable, scary steps. 

I'm sad over losing my family traditions under my grandparents and having to make my own, but when you strip it all away it's really just sadness and anxiety about how all of this will end one day. I believe in the existence of a somewhere beyond the blue and the beckoning of angels et al. (name that hymn!) but this is all I've ever known. The notion of going from one world where I've defined myself by my relationships - a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend -  to another world where those relationships are irrelevant (i.e. Jesus says in the Gospel that we're not married nor given in marriage in Heaven) kind of unsettles me. It's a mild crisis of self-definition.

And all of this flew through my head and the moment where I stood in my closet staring at Liam and messing with my earrings seemed like an hour. I knew that he wouldn't understand this, and that it may confuse or frighten him, so for the moment, I responded with a simple "because we miss that person's company and that's what we mourn." The answer satisfied him. It didn't satisfy me.

18 Comments

I wonder if your parents and grandparents were satisfied with what they told YOU when you were one of the kids? My guess is no.

The biggest secret is that when you become an adult you really just make stuff up as you go along. Death and Dying are really the most difficult since it's such a personal thing.

That's one of the reasons I love your blog. You make me realize that having kids is harder than just finding someone to co-parent with. Just when I think I'm ready, something on your blog makes me realize, maybe not yet. I know for me, there is always something left unsaid or undone so I worry the person didn't know how I really felt about them.

Amy,

There is no way you will ever be "ready" for kids if you are expecting to have all of the answers and know how to be the perfect parent first.

Even if you think you know, I guarantee that once you have kids, your answers will change. Kind of like that first time you ever say something your parents said that you swore you'd never do...like "Close the door. Do you think you live in a barn!!!???"

And Dana, I totally get where you are coming from. I worry about losing the first parent, either mine or my wife's. It's a weird thought, moving up the ladder.

Perhaps somewhere deep inside (or not so deep, depending) we all still long to be that kid, being taken care of, safe and secure, by parents that know everything!

I find myself in the same situation with Maddy. She's just old enough to understand the finality part of death, but she asks if her sisters can see her from Heaven, or will they come visit her in her dreams? Are they singing with the angels, because Jessica didn't like church music, and really couldn't sing well. Is Jessica singing rap music and is Kelli singing Jonas Brothers? Will they recognize her when she gets to Heaven, because she'll be so much older.

Maybe I'll have her talk to you.

Dana,
I could read that post over. My daughter recently rolled over in my bed on night around 11:00pm, and said out of the blue..."Momma, how do we get to heaven?" After I snapped back into reality, I explained to her that as long as she trys her best to always be kind, and leave this place a little better than we found it, she would have Heaven one day". That did not suffice.
She said no, "How do we get up there?" At that point I had some sort of peace come over me, and I told her the truth..."Honey, I don't know"..I haven't been yet. That was the answer she wanted. Just the truth. I love this post, I think it's my new favorite :-)

I think you nailed it, Gregg. Why would you want to stop being a kid? (Unless you ARE a kid and then all you want is to be a grown-up.) I've lost both of my parents within the last 8 years. It wasn't easy. Far, far, from it. And now I find myself with a granddaughter (I'm an ancient 52) and I'm amazed all over again at the cycle of life. But I have learned from those who have gone ahead of me. My parents formed my ways of thinking and created a frame work for my life. I have done the same thing for my kids. Quite successfully, I think. I'm satisfied with all of that. And I don't view advancing age as simply "heading down the slippery slide to the grave." I got called to the hospital bedside of a guy last night that almost bought the farm in a motorcycle accident yesterday. Drinking and driving on a bike with no helmet. Takes great brainpower to do that. He's alive today by the grace of God. Speaking of which (or "whom") He's the one that keeps me going. Without "Him" it all makes no sense whatsoever. Sorry to be so blunt about my beliefs. If someone chooses to do life without struggling to find the Hand that is responsible for all of this, well, rots-o-ruck.

I'm just sayin...

That was deep! Never thought about the staircase thing! Thanks for bumming me out:)

You answered well.
Did you see this? Also on death & dying, but really, on LIVING.
http://www2.oprah.com/health/oz/oz_20071022_350_106.jhtml

Answering those tough questions for kids and even adults will take on new meaning at every turn. I hope the answers you both give and receive will somehow comfort you eventually.

You're fast at replying!
I think Liam's questions are only the tip of the iceberg for what he will ask you a few years from now. I think you answered him in the right way and wrote about it in the right way as well..he'll see this later on and understand just how deep his momma is.

you answered well. i would have said the same thing. bc it is exactly that. we miss the person especially if they were wonderful human beings and we mourn that we can't hear their voice anymore.
i too believe in life after this one and let's see how that one goes, ha.
there better not be any dishwashing or 40-hour work week there.
my son asks a lot of amazing questions. i always forget them. i need to write them down asap. he said the most interesting thing today and i am completely blank on it. oh well...
i hope the service was beautiful and I pray that your family gets through this hard time.

Please, never ever stop thinking out loud.

That was a eloquent and insightful post, lady. I love the staircase analogy. And its all so very true.

There are times, such as this, when your writing haunts me. Your thoughts about loss made me cry, but came at perfect time, because I've been thinking a lot about it myself lately and how we move up the line.
As for your answer to Liam, I only hope that I can find the correct answer for my daughter's questions, as you always seem to be able to do, for I know they're coming soon.
Again, very sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

Sounds like you handled it beautifully. Not easy questions, but so nice that you prepared him so your husband could feel his feelings without worrying about scaring his kids. And a good opportunity for you to explain your beliefs. I think that's where kids find the most comfort.

I'm hoping the services will provide your family members comfort and sweet memories of time spent together. I love your writing, and look forward to reading your blog. I have endured the deaths of both my parents in the last couple of years. My father passed away unexpectedly, which left my mother lonely and also sometimes angry that he would "leave her". The thought that helped me get through the days following my mother's death was knowing that they were together again. I believe that families are eternal. I believe we do maintain family relationships and ties in the next life. I believe your family's ancestors were there to greet your loved one, and instead of shedding tears, there was a great celebration. Sending hugs to you and your family during this difficult time.

Wow. You hit on some of my discomfort, my fear of the afterlife. I've never been able to articulate it, but you've certainly hit close to home.

My son only has 2 grandparents, instead of 4. Sometimes I mourn what he won't have, but am grateful for what he does. And I pray that he gets to know them well.

Hmm. Good thoughts on sadness and fear of the unknown. But don't you think part of why we feel this is because the world we are in is fallen? This is a Christian concept right? Seems like we could express this to our children some way in stead of just leaving them hanging with fear of the unknown.

Yes I am sad and I will someday leave this earth like everyone else. I mourn and miss your grandparents (speaking to my child) but this impermanence and sadness is a reminder that this world is passing away. A new creation awaits us when our Lord returns. So whenever I feel this sadness I also try to reminde myself that this is part of man's our condition due to the great fall. But also there is a great future ahead where there will be no sadness and I try to take comfort in that! I hope and pray that your faith and mine will bring us together in this glorious future.

I hope this is not too trite or preachy. Your thoughts here are good and they really did make me think.

Blessings.

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