Last Sunday morning as we gathered for Bible study, the teacher asked if any of us had prayer requests; one friend in class held up her hand and related that one of her daughter's friend's mother had passed away that past week suddenly and unexpectedly. The daughter's friend is a fourteen year old high school freshman. I remember that vulnerable time of life.
Later as the worship service began, our minister shared his own prayer request. He had a call that morning that a beloved friend back home in Michigan had passed away leaving his wife and young children. Again my heart hurt for those suddenly fatherless children and that motherless young girl.
Tomorrow would have been my daddy's 90th earthly birthday; instead, he has been in heaven for forty-five years as of this past July. He died suddenly at home, with his wife and children present, in the wee hours of July 16, 1971. He left behind three children, ages 19, 16, and 9. Our lives have never been the same.
I was the baby, spoiled, two weeks shy of her tenth birthday, (exactly two weeks- that's always been an important, defining point for me. I don't know why.) Daddy died, in my parents' bed, at 3:16 am, at least that is when his watch stopped. My oldest sibling tried to perform CPR; the doctor told my mother later that even if Daddy had been in the hospital, they could not have saved him. His faulty heart valve, severely damaged by childhood rheumatic fever, had been expected to take his life in his twenties. He had told Mama that he knew those extra years were a gift from God. He lived a full life, being kind, teaching others about God, and leaving a legacy of love and provision for his family in those forty-five years.
My memories of that night are weird and disjointed to me; I woke to the sound of my mother crying, screaming I thought. Both siblings, in recent years, said she did not scream. I remember seeing the oldest sib doing CPR but I do not remember seeing Daddy's turning every color in the rainbow as my mother described later. The next thing I remember is the county ambulance crew taking Daddy's body out of our home, completely covered by a white sheet on their gurney. I also remember my mother sobbing in her best friend's arms while that gurney was passing by them in our living room. I don't remember the next few hours. Those were the days before there was an ambulance or firemen on every corner waiting to respond to emergencies; therefore, the best girlfriend made it to our home before the ambulance.
The next couple of days were busy. Mama and Daddy each had four siblings spread across the southeast. Each had a brother who was in Alaska at the time of Daddy's death. They neither one made it back to Tennessee for the service for my daddy.
All of the others converged for the visitation that Saturday night and the funeral that Sunday. I had cousins that I rarely saw to hang out with. Mind now, I was nine. Some time, must have been Saturday, my cousins and I went to our basement family room and I put music on the stereo and played it very loudly and we had a pillow (or maybe it was stuffed animals) fight. We were having great fun.
Years later, while taking a Thanatology (the study of death and dying) class at the local university, I wrote a paper about children and the death of a parent. I met with my student advisor, who was also the professor teaching that class; I related to him, "I am/was normal! I never knew!" He smiled at me not understanding at first what I meant. I thanked him for allowing me to do that paper and research. For the first time in over a decade, I forgave myself for my childhood behavior; I understood that my reaction to Daddy's death was well within "normal" guidelines. Children do not react to death the same ways as adults. And they should not be expected to act like little adults.
I think as adults, we need to realize that children have an inner life just as we do. I can remember intricate fantasies I conjured in which my parents had secretly divorced and couldn't face the shame so Daddy had left town and his death was faked. (It was the early 1970's and we were church people) I can also remember lying in bed on several occasions during my teenage years trying to "will" my father's ghost to visit me. I missed him so much. Teenage girls need their daddies (and their mamas.) So do teenage boys, and babies, and little children. There is no easy age, time, or way to lose a parent.
It felt for years that my Daddy had been the glue that held our family of five together; in hindsight, I think there is deep truth in that statement. But I also think his death happened at such a transitional time of life that it over emphasized what came shortly later. From my nearly ten year old perspective, Daddy's death changed everything at once. The reality is that Daddy died in the summer of 1971. In August, 1972, my brother went away to college on the other side of the state and never came home to live permanently again. He was home for breaks, but never lived full time at home. My oldest sibling married in December, 1972 and became a parent during the summer of 1973 and then again in 1974. Though living in our hometown, my oldest sibling's life was no longer shared full time.
So in just under a year and one-half, we transitioned from a family of five, father, mother, young adult, teenager, and one spoiled, little girl to a single, widowed mom with one child at home. My world was crushed in many ways. But again, it took years to work through all that and even understand how it all affected me. Seeking counseling was not something my mother would do in the seventies. Mental illness and depression carried such stigma in those days. I know both my siblings probably could have used a little help also working through the grief and the family dynamics changes. We all suffered in ways that have never been discussed.
Most of my mom's friends and family said that "she was never the same after your Dad's death." That is true from my perspective also. She entered a battle with early onset Alzheimer's Disease just thirteen to fourteen years after Daddy's death. I have often wondered if Daddy's devastating death was the trigger for changes in her brain. I have no idea if the science supports that or not.
My behavior had always bothered me until my research and writing released me from that guilt. But I found out several years ago that at least one aunt had also not understood my reaction to my Dad's death. During a visit with her, she began talking negatively about one of my siblings, relating to me about the "wild party" in the basement "when your Daddy was a corpse." I set her straight on who it was that was having that party. My "inappropriate" behavior had bothered me for more than a decade until I learned it was not inappropriate, it was childish. I forgave myself. And I shared with that aunt that my behavior had been perfectly normal.
I am writing this as therapy for myself but also for others to share. When we lose our loved ones, it changes us, all of us. We all cope and react differently; but please understand, that children are not little adults. They may react in ways that are strange or seem inappropriate to the adults around them. But most likely, their reactions are spot on normal.
If you are close to a grieving child, let that little (or bigger) person talk all they want or be as quiet as they want about their loss, their deceased parent, or how life has changed. Hold that child in prayer often. Be there whenever possible to support the grieving family and be sensitive to the changed dynamics and the possible need for a "big brother or sister" or an "adopted" parent for the child(ren) left behind. Your prayers and presence could make all the difference to a hurting child.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to
visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself
unstained from the world. James 1: 27