Mamarama: Kids & Mourning
Natasha Caicedo Memorial Photo
Last month, with the sudden death of local restaurant owner Natasha Caicedo, my family was exposed to the throes of unexpected loss. My girls, ages 11 & 12, were in the car with me when I received the simple message that Natasha was “at peace now” and unwittingly caught a firsthand view of what a grieving parent looks like. Overcome by emotion, I pulled to the side of the road and absorbed this news while they sat uncomfortably quiet.
Every parent, at some point or another, must figure out how to navigate discussions about death and mourning. It might be over a family pet, a beloved friend, a relative — death is never an easy topic to broach with kids – or even adults, for that matter.
Coping with last month’s tragedy held many teachable moments for my daughters. They witnessed both parents in a mode of abject grief, shock, and extreme emotion. At the same time, they had to process their own feelings of surprise that someone young and healthy could have her life ended so senselessly – and so swiftly. My girls had previously seen death come to a grandparent – but this was very different, and so was our family’s response.
As a family mourns and processes death, children sometimes attend memorial services or funerals. Some parents instinctively protect their children from exposure to wakes, services, shivas – and that’s understandable. Frequently, depending on the religious background of the deceased, a wake includes a viewing of the body displayed, unnaturally powdered and made-up, in an elegantly padded coffin. This is uncomfortable for many of us – adults and children alike.
When the time came for Natasha’s memorial service, I never thought for a moment that my girls shouldn’t be included. Unlike a religious service that might contain a casket or a glimpse at the shell left behind, this service held no allusion to mortal remains. It was held in the unlikely (yet entirely appropriate) location of the restaurant Natasha helped create. The memorial was seen as a celebration of life, with food, music and good company, rather than a grim and dark affair. I wanted my children to be a part of it.
Christiane Manzella, PhD, is a grief counselor with a specialty in death and bereavement. She explains the following in a recent article for The Seleni Institute where she is a senior consulting psychologist:
Grief brings all kinds of emotions. We associate it with sadness, but there is often a mix of other intense and painful emotions including dread, anguish, anxiety, guilt, resentment, helplessness, and shock. Grief can even include such unexpected feelings as anger or even relief (especially if you sensed something was wrong). It’s not unusual to feel several emotions at once.
Grief is physical. Your body feels grief almost as acutely as your mind. You may become physically ill, oppressively tired, or have trouble sleeping. Sometimes you may feel outside of yourself, even disoriented. At times you can feel so disoriented you may ask yourself: “Am I losing my mind?” No, you are not. You are grieving.
Grief can change your behavior. You may not want to eat or you may eat a lot. You may feel absent-minded and forgetful. Withdrawing from other people is common. You can feel intensely irritated or angry about anything that anyone says to you. It’s ok. You are coping and evolving, and you can and will be connected to people again.
Many Americans have few ties to cultural traditions regarding death and grieving. Unless you and your partner are steeped in the same religious or cultural customs, you may not have any “end of life” traditions at all. For example, wearing all black was once a universal symbol of mourning. Wearing all black now is as unique as carrying an umbrella on a rainy day. Many of us have lost a way to non-verbally communicate a recent death. Even verbally, we are often without words or explanations, and we don’t know how to express condolences and sympathy.
I explained this to my daughters, adding that it’s unfortunate that culturally we have no way to distinguish someone who is mourning. There’s no outward way to know that something is different for a person – that they are grieving. If there was an unspoken symbol of loss, that person – the mom who lost her baby or the man who lost his wife – could go into a bank or supermarket, and the people around him or her might express an extra gesture of kindness, of sympathy. The grieving person need not say, “I’m sorry, I can’t remember my PIN number…I’m in shock” – because everyone would recognize their suffering.
At the memorial service, it was important that my kids saw laughter mixed with tears. There was food and friendly chatter punctuated by crying, solemn silences and sympathetic tacit expressions. In this case, Natasha, whose life was cut short so abruptly, was always a maternal force. She loved children and they loved her back. Explaining to our children about her death was inevitable and important; it wasn’t a detail that we could skip over and push to a more convenient time. Many parents are surprised by their child’s ability to cope with and accept death – sometimes in a more philosophical and accepting way than they are capable of themselves.
And therein lies the best lesson for sharing Natasha’s sad story with children who knew her. Somehow in their own realm of innocence and limited life experience, they show us things we didn’t know about love, life and death. They may suggest attaching a black balloon to your wrist or remind you that there’s a beautiful place out there where no bike accidents ever happen.
In the case of our family, there was simply no shielding the children from the enormity of this event. They watched the many ways a community, and their parents, experience a mourning process – and that was a life lesson they won’t soon forget.