I was in an audience in Sacramento, listening to Alan D. Wolfelt, a man whose speech topics are not cheerful.
Wolfelt is a psychologist, workshop leader and author whose 57 books are about death, divorce, suicide and other topics that involve loss and grief. It can be difficult to listen to him, but I enjoyed the talk because I thought he was wise.
One moment, however, made me uncomfortable. It came when he said that children who are “old enough to love” are old enough to attend funerals. It reminded me of something I may have done wrong, but I’ll get back to that.
Wolfelt believes that Americans handle death poorly with a “buck up” mentality that dismisses people’s need to grieve (privately) and mourn (with others).
Rituals and ceremonies, he says, are essential to fill the gap when words are inadequate. If music brings tears, that’s a good thing. Same goes for seeing the body or bringing food or flowers. The best ceremonies, he said, provoke both tears and laughter.
He believes that, like adults, children are able to accept and deal with the reality of death, given the opportunity. In the early 1900s the average age of death in America was 47, and funerals happened all the time. Children couldn’t avoid being there, any more than they could avoid loss in their lives.
Children, and adults, have less experience with mourning nowadays because of demographics. People lead such long lives that many of us do not experience a major loss until we’re in our 40s or 50s. Many people have never been to a funeral.
Wolfelt’s suggestion that children be included in rituals, combined with his observation about demographics, returned me to an old question in my life.
When my mother died, I was 40 years old and had never been to a funeral. My children were 5 and 2. The older child, my daughter, and her grandma had a very loving relationship. When my mother was hospitalized, barely able to speak, she told me not to bring my daughter to the phone. It was too painful for Grandma.
My mother died in the hospital, unexpectedly, and when my husband and I prepared to return to New York for the memorial service, our daughter asked if she could come.
I considered it, but never having been to a service myself, I didn’t know what it would be like. I worried even more about the days before and after the service, when I imagined the family sitting around the house grieving. I pictured a flood of tears.
When I thought about bringing my daughter into these circumstances, it seemed cruel. What would a 5-year-old do among weeping adults?
So, based on what I imagined the week would be like, I said “no,” but in the years since that decision has stayed with me, a question mark. Beth didn’t fight me, but she was disappointed. Fortunately, we had a mature college student living with us who could stay with the children.
Beth asked me to take photos, and I said I would, until I realized later how awkward that would be. In the end, she was left out entirely.
When I got to New York, the situation was far different from what I had imagined. As Wolfelt says, Americans buck up even during periods of greatest sadness. During the whole week, nobody ever sat around and cried, although I wept in private. The atmosphere, while not jovial, was friendly and warm.
I thought to myself, “Beth could have been here. I should have let her come.”
No one else seemed to feel that way, so I tried to let go of my regret. I had made what I thought was the best decision.
My daughter tells me she doesn’t remember Grandma, not really. She has seen photos, of course, but she doesn’t remember making lemon bars, going to the zoo, swimming together. She does recall a minor traffic accident with Grandma driving, which I guess was quite a shock.
She does not remember, as I do, how my mother came into full flower around her grandchildren, the happiest I’d ever seen her. Her joy came out in dozens of small moments, looking at flowers with my daughter as they walked to nursery school or having a tea party at a tiny table, just the two of them. It was a relationship filled with nothing but love.
As I listened to Dr. Wolfelt I asked myself, “Would Beth remember Grandma now if she had come to New York, if she had attended the memorial service and seen the tears?”
Did my choice to block her from all that also block the memories? At the age of 5, Beth could have been old enough to remember Grandma. Why didn’t it happen?
I’m not ready to endorse Wolfelt’s recommendation regarding young children. I need to know more. But some part of me believes that in the mysterious process of experiencing grief and mourning and seeking peace, I made a mistake and cut off something precious for my daughter.
This thought brings tears anew.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org