family · slice of life

On dying… and death.

I’ve known, since April, that death would be knocking on our family’s door sometime soon. You see, in April, we learned my uncle’s cancer was worse than we thought it was when he was initially diagnosed. We held out hope that he’d be strong enough to undergo more treatments or even surgery.  But things spiraled out of control in early August, which signaled that he wasn’t going to see his 75th birthday next year.

My uncle was admitted to hospice last Wednesday evening. From my experience, I know that a trip to Hospice is usually a one-way ticket, so-to-speak. I knew, once my uncle entered hospice, that the end was near.

On Friday, Isabelle asked me, “What are we doing next weekend?” While I had planned for us to go to the pool and to go apple picking with some kids from her school, I knew we’d be busy with family things. So, instead of lying and saying, “I don’t know,” I sat her beside me and explained that Uncle Leonard was really sick and he was dying. I told her we’d probably be at Bubbe and Zayde’s for part of next weekend since we’d be mourning the loss of her great-uncle.

Have you ever explained death to a young child? If you haven’t, then consider yourself lucky. The death conversation is the one talk I’ve dreaded. (That’s right. I feel much more confident with the impending “birds & bees talk” than I felt with talking to my child about what happens when someone dies.) And for good reason. Despite my simple explanation, Isabelle had tons of questions. She wanted to know:

  • What happens to your body when you die?
  • Where is Uncle Leonard right now?
  • Where would Uncle Leonard ‘sleep’ after his heart stopped beating?
  • How would Uncle Leonard get from Florida to New York?
  • What happens at a funeral?
  • Why do adults cry at a funeral?
  • How does Uncle Leonard get up to heaven? (I explained, which led to the follow-up question of “How does the Kaddish prayer help the soul go higher and higher?”)
  • How does the body get under the grass?
  • And more and more and more.

Eventually, I cried in front of Isabelle. The questions were too much for me to bear with a stiff upper lip. (Of course, that led to “Why are you crying if he isn’t dead yet?” And that led to me imploring her to say passed away instead of saying dead.) I’m trying to deal with my own grief of having my uncle pass away since I believe he should’ve had many more years of life. I’m trying to support my dad and cousins. And while I’m doing all of this, I’m attempting to manage the everyday things I need to do as a mom of two, a wife, and in my own personal and work life.  It’s a lot.

The questions have continued since my uncle passed away on Saturday morning. And I’m sure they’ll continue all week as we get ready for the funeral (which she will not attend) and the shiva period. While it’ll be nice to have the family gathered together for a few days, the circumstances are not ideal.

This is how I want to remember my Uncle Leonard… smiling with a camera around his neck taking pictures of the family.

Click here if you’d like to read my uncle’s obituary.

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10 thoughts on “On dying… and death.

  1. Never having had children, I’ve not had to have that conversation. Isabelle’s questions are ones that many adults think, but don’t voice aloud.

    I am wishing you and your family the best during this difficult time.

  2. My thoughts are with you .. never easy to explain to young ones. My mom always taught me that a funeral was the celebration of someone’s life. Tears of joy and sorrow in remembering the past and carrying it into the future. Sending hugs your way.

  3. My deepest sympathy on the passing of your dear uncle and my gratitude for your sharing of a painful time. You did so with wisdom, love and honesty. You have a curious child who will grow into more than a literate human, though that is a gift in itself. How did you learn to be such a good mommy? Perhaps from those who raised you, perhaps from all your professional learning and doing, perhaps from your own inner drive to lead a good and enduring life. And leave the world better. I am guessing Uncle Leonard may have played a role. I am so sorry he is gone too soon.

  4. My condolences again on the loss of your uncle, Stacey. When my kids were 3 and 4, my grandfather passed away. I didn’t know how to explain it to them, so I turned to picture books to help me tell the story. I wish I could remember the titles, but they sure helped all of us. Wishing you and your whole family peace in the days ahead.

  5. So sorry to hear of your uncle’s death. I had to explain death to my children when their grandmother died when they were four and six. Like Jennifer mentioned, I turned to picture books. And my favorite from that time is Badger’s Parting Gifts which focuses on the gifts we enjoy from those we’ve loved. Another picture book I picked up recently at our library book sale is Lifetimes: The beautiful way to explain death to children. Maybe your library will still have it. It’s a beautiful explanation of beginnings, endings, and about living in between. Thinking of you and your family during this difficult time.

  6. Sorry for your loss. What a great smile in that photo, makes it clear the great loss you feel.

    Our faith and prayers, family and friends, and the love of the dear one who passed away help us to help our children. You will find the strength and wisdom you need.

  7. I’m sorry for your loss. It has been my experience that the questions will keep coming at random times. It’s funny how those little minds hold onto information and just when you think they’ve forgotten, they have more wonders. Wishing you strength in this hard times.

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