Never Alone is a book that I have been working on for the last year. I am posting the overview and first chapter below. Please feel free to offer your comments, criticisms, suggestions, etc. Thanks!
Joe, a young boy of six, watched as his father, a vibrant young man, swam in the ocean with his cousin. Playing in the sand at the edge of the ocean, glancing out to check on his father from time to time, Joe suddenly noticed that something had gone terribly wrong. He watched as his father’s head went up and down, up and down, in the water. His cousin swam away from Joe’s father with a horrified look on her face. Joe ran as fast as his six-year-old legs would carry him back to the bungalow to get his mother. “Come quick! Dad is drowning!” he told her. She ran with him down to the beach. Shortly after they arrived a young woman was able to retrieve his father’s body from the ocean. Joe noticed that his father’s face was “all blotchy purple.” “This is not going to have a good outcome,” he thought to himself as his father was carted off in an ambulance. From that moment on Joe would never be the same nor would any other child whose life is touched by death too soon.
Never Alone tells the story of Joe and twenty other people whose parents died when they were children. Drawing on the author’s own experience stemming both from having lost her father in childhood and from her work as a clinical psychologist, Never Alone takes the reader on a journey detailing how, from the moment of death and through the events that follow thereafter, the early death of a parent can change people for better or worse. Along the way, Dr. Miller makes suggestions for parents about what course of action to take to set the stage for a better outcome for their children. Dr. Miller also offers interventions designed to help adults who still feel traumatized by their parents early, untimely deaths. That we will never be the same the moment our parent dies is non-negotiable; where we end up psychologically largely depends on what happens next. Never Alone is designed to not only help children to survive after the untimely death of their parents but to help them to thrive in the face of adversity.
Chapter 1: A Parent Dies: It’s the End of the World as We Know It!
The sky was a bright blue and cloudless. It was a beautiful spring morning. The sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze. The marigolds were just beginning to poke up from the soil and birds were building their nests. After the dark and dreary winter, life was on the verge of bursting into the world. As I looked up there were airplanes writing “Happy Mother’s Day!” It was one of those days on which it seemed that everything was right in the world – well, in other people’s worlds, not mine. As I noticed the writing, I instantly felt disconnected from every other human being. I imagined everybody else out celebrating with their families while my heart ached so badly that I thought I might not survive. The date was May 10, 1986 – the day that my father died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. I was nine years old. I now belonged to a different world.
Hearing that your parent has died is the instant that you know that life as you knew it has changed. How a child finds out seems to be one of the first indicators of how sensitive the adults in the child’s life are going to be to the child’s needs. Around lunchtime on May 8th, it became obvious to everyone that my father was not doing well. He seemed to be having more trouble breathing and was sleeping all of the time. His muscles had completely failed him months earlier – thus, he was a prisoner in both his body and his bed. As a result of his deteriorated condition, my mother and I could not take him to a doctor so we called Dr. Howie Hertz who was willing to make a house call. Momentarily forgetting the gravity of the situation, I pranced around the house laughing while I repeated “Dr. HOW HE HURTS!! What a name for a doctor!” While my grandparents and mother were amused for a moment by my antics, they quickly shushed me, reminding me that “Your father is trying to sleep.”
When the doctor arrived, the mood in the house was so tense you could hear a pin drop. It was as if we each knew that my father was about to get a death sentence. Our dog Champ, a black and white Shih Tzu, seemed to be expressing all of our anxieties by barking repeatedly at the doctor. His barking was so relentless that my brother Tim and I were told to go downstairs to the basement with the dog; the doctor was not able to listen to my father’s lungs over the din of the dog’s barking. There, in the basement we huddled by the door, straining to hear what was happening upstairs. We couldn’t hear much – the sound of hushed voices – and once we heard the noise of the front door closing, the three of us went bounding upstairs. We weren’t down there long – maybe twenty minutes – maybe less – I guess it doesn’t take long to write somebody off; it takes a lot longer to save a life.
When we reached the main level of the house it was immediately obvious that the mood was grim. “What’s going on? What did the doctor say?” my brother and I asked repeatedly. Time stood still as somber, stony faces stared back at us. Finally, my mother said, “Let’s go speak in Meg’s bedroom.” The hallway from the living room to my bedroom never seemed as long before or since as it did that day. The walk along that hallway represented, for me, the switch from life with dad to life without a father. When we reached the bedroom, my mother told us, “It is the worst news possible.” Although I didn’t say it, I thought that this meant that my father would live on like this for many more years. Before I had a chance to process this possibility and what this would mean for me, she added, “The doctor said he is in a semi-coma and is going to die within 24 hours. He can hear you but he cannot speak.” I immediately felt relief, and then anger and sadness. I needed to do something with all of the feelings, all of the fury, so I went outside with my softball. The children in the neighborhood rallied around and supported my brother, Tim, and me. As I whipped the softball at the unsuspecting catcher, he asked, “Meghan, are you alright?” Although I was touched by his concern and compassion, my feelings of anger at the situation – now displaced onto him for asking such a stupid question – trumped my warm feelings. My father was in the process of dying – clearly I was not alright!
I was nine at the time and could not stay on the topic of my father’s death for very long; at that age, I could not tolerate the topic for more than a few minutes. This is a very typical reaction of children trying to process the loss of a loved one. At the same time, I did want to know what was happening but I did not and could not dwell on it for long periods of time; the reality of what was happening was simply too overwhelming, too UNBELIEVABLE. Months earlier, I had asked my mother “Is Daddy going to die?” several different times. Each time, she had said, “We are all going to die someday, Meghan.” The fact that my mother had not told me directly when I had asked about my father’s fate undermined my relationship with her, led me to question my intuitive feelings, and did not allow me to prepare for my father’s death. But I digress . . .
After about a half hour of playing softball, I went back inside the house. At this point, my mother told me, “Meghan, you have a decision to make – you can either stay here or you and Tim can go have a sleepover at Mark and Todd’s house. What do you want to do?” I knew that this was a decision that I was going to have to live with for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to make the wrong choice. I felt incapable of handling my own emotions, as well as my brother’s, so I said, “I will do the opposite of whatever Tim is doing.” At that point, Tim (he was seven) said tearfully, “But I am going to do whatever you do.” Since this was the case, I felt that I had to leave to go to my friend’s house. I could not bear being there to watch my father die while supporting my brother at the same time.
Whether to stay or to go as a parent’s death approaches is a very individual, personal decision. Sometimes people remain there intentionally, while at other times being there at the moment of death is more or less accidental because the death is either sudden or not expected to occur at that moment. Of course, there are also the instances in which people desperately want to be there at the moment of their loved one’s death, step out for a moment to use the bathroom, and return to find that their loved one has died. Of the people who I formally interviewed for this book, three of them were present at the time of their parent’s death. Two of them said that they remembered it “as if it were yesterday.” While there is no easy way to find out, being there at the time of death can be extremely overwhelming and traumatizing for a child. Joe, who was six at the time of his father’s death, recounted his experience of standing on the shoreline watching his father drowning. His family was on vacation at a beach for the month of August and his father had come to join them for lunch, which Joe said was a “once happening.” He said:
We stayed on the edge of the water. He came down with my older cousin, uh, who was 13 at the time. I was six, and uh, they went out further because they were taller and so they were up to their chests. And I was playing with a bunch of kids on the edge but glancing out at them realizing that they were there and that it was nice to be able to be there with them, you know – to some degree with them even though I couldn’t be out that far. I was not even thinking how nice it would be to know how to swim – none of us knew how to swim. Even my father, my father didn’t know how to swim, nor did my cousin, my mother – none of them. Ah, and so I remember glancing out there a couple of times and watching them, and then a third time looking out and seeing – not seeing my father but seeing my cousin with a look of fright on her face as she’s looking back where he was and she is running away from him, and I could see standing on my toes the top of his head bobbing in the water so immediately that I know I ran to the bungalow and my mom was in there with an apron and she was shelling peas. She had a pot in her hand where she was shelling peas in them and I told her that dad is drowning – it was a fact and so she came with me. So she ran down to the beach, and, uh, it seemed like an eternity that he was still there and my cousin was now on the beach. People that were in the water were not going anywhere near him, leaving him there – there was a lot of frantic crap going on. There was a rowboat that was beached right there that someone suggested my mom get in it and they would take her out to him. She got in the darn rowboat and they started rowing out there and I could see her with the apron and the darn pot of peas in her hand. And, uh, there was a young girl who was a good athlete who apparently could swim who went right to him eventually. So that’s – the young lady was the one who got him up and pulled him in. She swam with him back and pulled him up on the beach and then other people when they saw her doing this were able to aid. They got him up on the beach, and by now it seemed there was a crowd of people – a lot of people all standing around. Apparently, somebody did call for an ambulance, and I was standing off from the crowd and I could see him through their legs, you know, because I was a little kid and I could see his face was up and was blotchy purple and I knew that this was not good, that the whole thing, I knew from the first, that it was not going to be a good thing (laughs nervously).
The participants who witnessed their parents’ deaths all said that nobody had to tell them that their parent had died because what had happened was obvious. Each of the three participants had a different reaction at the moment of his or her parent’s death. Joe felt the need to brace himself as he felt that this moment was a test that he must pass, a test of his manhood, and so he was focused on doing whatever he had to in order to make sure that he did not cry. Melissa remembered watching her mother’s heart rate going down on the monitor while she died of cancer. She reported crying hysterically and knowing that her mother had died but “not knowing fully”. She was glad to have been there at the moment of death. Liz said that she did not know what to do as her father died of a massive heart attack. She explained: “He died during the night. I had no idea that he was in cardiac arrest. My mother was just standing there screaming and he is moaning in bed. I went and got a facecloth and put compresses on him. I had no clue.” Watching a parent die suddenly is a potentially traumatic, destabilizing, and confusing event for children. There is no “right” way to react – what is most important is that each person feels the freedom to respond in the way that is most helpful for him or her, in all of its uniqueness. It is crucial that children have a reassuring, supportive, adult to guide them through the chaos and to contain and to help them to make sense of their many, sometimes seemingly contradictory feelings.
Most of the interviewees who were not there at the moment of their parents’ death were told about their parents’ death by the surviving parent. In my case, my mother confirmed for us that our father had indeed died just like she had told us he would the day before (despite my wishes and wildest fantasies that he would be healed at the last moment just like the people in the Bible). The next day, my mother picked us up at our friend’s house. The ride home was very quiet. This was fine with me – I didn’t feel the need for there to be any discussion or explanation about what had transpired overnight. Plus, I was not really ready at all to hear that my father had died. My brother, however, felt that he had to know, so he asked my mother, “Did dad die?” She said, “Yes, honey, he did.” Tim said, “You mean he is not coming back?” “No, honey, he is not.” We were quiet for the rest of the ride. All I was thinking was that I could not believe that I was left with my mother – while I loved her greatly, she seemed so dependent on our father and so incapable of caring for us. I knew at that moment that I was going to have to look out for myself.
Several people interviewed for this book were not present for the moment of their parent’s death and were not told of the death by the surviving parent. They learned of their parent’s death through an aunt, a sister, a brother, and a friend’s mother. The participants over 65 were not told of their parent’s death by anyone at all. They figured out what had happened by overhearing adults talking. Two of them reported thinking that the adults did not want to tell them that their parent had died because it was too hard for the adults. Often this seems to happen – adults say that they are not telling the children because they do not want to upset them when really they do not want to upset themselves – they want to spare themselves any additional grief.
Fran recounted walking into the house after her father had died. It was filled with people who vanished to different rooms when she and her brother entered, apparently because nobody wanted to tell the children what had happened. Fran and Clarissa, who were not told directly of their parents’ deaths, said that they wished someone would have told them directly. Those who did hear the news directly reported feeling “startled,” “shocked,” “in disbelief,” “relieved,” “sad,” “scared,” and “a really deep sense of loss.” Many participants said that they felt “completely overwhelmed.” It seems like a child’s ability to cope with and to process such tragic news gets overloaded more quickly than adults. Upon hearing the news of the death, participants expressed feelings such as: “It was surreal,” “I wondered how am I going to live my life without her,” “I thought that I was never going to be able to survive,” “It kind of overloaded my brain,” “It felt sort of out of body,” and “I was wondering what dead really meant.”
Some participants reported having more of a somatic reaction to the news. One young woman, Marcene, expressed that she, “went limp and pale and was like in a trance.” Another participant, Mary, said that she had a “panic attack.” One young man, Robert, reminisced about the moment that he heard of his father’s death: “You don’t believe it, you know?” He described hearing the news this way:
I got home from school and I walked in and everyone was there like family and friends, and yeah, it is just very visual. My mother came in from the living room and, um, she came from the living room down the hall and she took me back into the living room and we sat on the couch and everyone was everywhere – kitchen, living room – I mean everywhere. I knew that something was not right and so she told me and it was pretty intense. I was sitting on the couch and I just sort of fell in between the coffee table and the couch. So I think that sort of symbolizes what I felt without saying anything; I didn’t know what to say. I mean when you are ten, you do not know how to respond, but I guess my body responded to it or my emotional system responded to it like that so yeah, and it never really goes away. Umm, I can live with it but it doesn’t go away. It is always pretty much right there.
Sometimes children’s bodies speak for them when they cannot put into words what they need to say.
One of the hardest questions that every surviving parent and/or caretaker of the surviving children faces is: How do I tell the children that their mother or father has died? As some interviewees pointed out, it was common practice in the past for people to avoid telling the children. This only makes everything worse. The children are still aware that their parent has died but now they also have to shoulder the burden of unanswered questions and of feeling left out of the community of grievers. In short, they are left to try to make sense of what happened to their parent on their own. This would be crazy making for adults – all the more so for children. Not telling children also leads to the conclusion that our home is a place of secrets rather than of open communication; it suggests that they are forbidden to ask questions about what happened to their parent. When tragic occurrences such as the death of a parent cannot be spoken about openly, children’s fantasies can run wild as they create explanations about what may have happened to their parent. Through this process, children can end up a long way (emotionally) from where they once started.
There is no “right” way to tell a child that his or her mother or father died, other than being direct and avoiding euphemisms. As we as a society progressed to realizing that we needed to tell children that their parent has died, we decided to soften the blow by using euphemisms such as “Mommy went to sleep. She is with Jesus.” Such sayings can be problematic and should be avoided. Using a euphemism such as “sleep” often makes children afraid to go to sleep because they do not want to not wake up like their dead parent. It is really best to take the child to a quiet area, have him or her sit down and explain, “You know how mommy was sick? She died last night.” Each child reacts differently at this point. Some children will cry, others will have a lot of questions, some will have a somatic reaction (have a stomach ache, faint), and others will seem to have no reaction (they might carry on with life as usual and go outside to play ball with friends). At this point, the job of the surviving parent or caretaker is to just meet the child where he or she is at emotionally – answer honestly the questions of the interrogator (as difficult as this can be), comfort the crier, tend to the somatizer (and try to help him or her put the somatic symptoms into words), and let the child with no reaction go for a time but be sure to check back in with him or her periodically to assess how he or she is doing with processing the news. While it is important to lend support to children should they want to ask questions or talk about their deceased parent, it is also crucial not to overwhelm them by forcing them to speak about their dead parent when they are not ready. It is key to take the cue from the child, despite what WE may think is best for the child, because it is impossible for us to know what is best. Grief (and the processing of it) is such a unique individual experience that no two people do it the same, and this is exactly as it should be.
Before my brother and I left for our friend’s house, my mother said, “Go tell daddy that you love him and give him a hug and a kiss.” As Tim and I crept down the hallway towards our parents’ bedroom I felt vomit rising in my throat. I was terrified to enter the bedroom. What does a dying person look like? I worried. I was relieved to see that he did not look as bad as I had imagined – he looked the same as he did before I knew he was dying. The only difference was that his breathing was labored and aided by oxygen and now he was unable to communicate at all. We climbed up onto opposite sides of the bed and kissed our father’s sunken cheek saying, “I love you daddy.” His skin was pulled taut over the bones of his emaciated body. The smell of stale cigarettes hung in the air. Our father stared back at us. He was unable to speak at this point but his eyes said that he loved us too. I was overwhelmed by the thought (which was so incomprehensible then and still is now) that at that moment my father was still in the land of the living but that in a little while he would be dead . . . where would he be then?
During this time, we were chaperoned by our grandparents and our mother; this bothered me. I wanted to tell my father things that were just for him to hear, but the adults were too anxious to leave me alone with him and robbed me of that last private interaction. If I had been alone with him I doubt that it would have been a genuine conversation. I do not think that I would have told him that I did not want him to die, that I felt I desperately needed him, and that I was scared about what would happen to me if he died. I probably would have stuck with the “right” things to say. I would express gratitude for all that he had taught me, let him know that we would be OK, and tell him that I would make him proud. I would not want to do anything to upset my father, especially not on his deathbed, because on some level I felt that if I was extraordinarily good he would live.
At my friend’s house, I stayed up late talking about how unbelievable it was that the next day my father would be gone because he would be dead. While I appreciated my mother letting us make the decision of whether to stay or to go, I wish I could have had the opportunity to choose whether or not I was accompanied to say good-bye to my father. While it is easier for adults to rashly make decisions without consulting the children (which is understandable given the extreme stress the surviving parent is under when his or her spouse is dying) I think that it is important for kids to be allowed to determine how they wish to spend their final moments with their parents.
Twelve of the participants reported that their parents were sick for at least a couple of weeks before death. Of those participants, eight got to say goodbye to their parents in person. Sal recalled his last visit:
After a while she was on a respirator, so even when she was awake she couldn’t do anything but look at you which was hard enough. She had a little pad, and if I remember correctly before she died she said goodbye to everyone. So she wrote out goodbye and she wanted a hug. We were saying ‘OK Goodbye we will see you tomorrow,’ and she was like ‘No, this is goodbye,’ but we didn’t get it until we got the phone call at 2 or 3 in the morning.
Beatriz recollected her last visit:
She had all of these tubes everywhere. She was very swollen. She did not look like the mother I had known. I held her hand and I talked to her, and tears came down her face, so the doctors said that she was not in a coma; she just could not open her eyes but she was aware that we were there. I told her that we were okay from the car accident and that we loved her and missed her.
These participants had mixed reactions about getting to say goodbye to their parents. On the one hand, they reported being grateful to have had that closure, while on the other, they regretted having that last image of their dying parent etched in their memories. Melissa reported feeling guilty because one day when her mother was close to death she awoke from the coma she had been in and started telling her children how much she loved them and wanted the best for them. Melissa became overwhelmed and ran from the room, saying that she had to use the bathroom. She felt guilty that she left while her mother was trying to impart her last wishes and dreams for them. She felt that she could have at least stood there and listened to her, but it is very difficult for an adult to bear those last conversations with a loved one, much less a child.
Since some of the parents had the knowledge of their impending deaths, they had some time to tie up loose ends for their children. Sal reported that his mother “wrapped up her role” by teaching him how to cook, bake, drive, do laundry, and balance a checkbook. Although she never said it, he thinks that she was ensuring that he had the tools to be able to survive without her. Alicia’s mother told her directly, “I am dying.” As a result of knowing that her mom was dying, Alicia wanted to spend nights with her. She ended up sleeping in her mother’s room until someone decided it was unhealthy for her. On the night that Alicia’s mother died, she was in a delirious state and was not making sense. Before going to bed, Alicia tried to calm her mother down and told her that she loved her and that it was going to be okay. She reported that being there gave her a sense of being “helpful” throughout the dying process.
While some children felt the need to see the body after death, others found it to be traumatizing. Several people went to see their parents’ bodies at the hospital after they died. Lauren reported, “I remember standing at the door and then my dad kind of pushing me to give her a kiss, and I remember her head being cold, and although I cannot remember how I felt, I can only imagine that I felt like running away.” A handful of people did not get to see their parents after they died for various reasons. Vincent and Adrienne were fine with that outcome, but Caroline and Stewart felt that seeing their dead parent would have given them closure.
Not seeing the body seemed to lead to stronger than normal fantasies that perhaps the deceased parent was not dead after all, but was hiding out somewhere, waiting for the opportune time to re-enter their lives. Caroline said, “It took me a long time to realize that he was away and not coming back. And, occasionally, I would catch glimpses of him or someone like him and think that maybe he was living life, just not our life.” Stewart, whose father was lost at war, said:
And so the weird thing that added potentially to our mental or psychological challenges was that there was no casket . . . so the challenge for me was that it took a good – it wasn’t until 11th grade, believe it or not, until I finally gave up the ghost of that you know that he is never going to resurface, because I think for the first couple of years I was thinking, you know, MIA. Just because they have given up the search doesn’t mean that he is not floating out there somewhere, or that he’s not on some island.
In my own case, I saw my father about ten hours before his death, but did not get to see his body after death because he did not want an open casket. For the most part, I am relieved that I did not get to see his dead body – I had been seeing it waste away over the months prior to his death and did not need to see it completely lifeless. In the early years following his death, I never questioned whether he had died or not – I felt that death was the obvious natural progression. When I first knew my father, he was a strong, muscular, athletic, sure-footed, vibrant man. Over the last two years of his life, he became increasingly weak, unstable, and emaciated, until he was finally unable to move at all. Five years after his death, however, I was playing basketball with a friend. She asked me whether I had seen my father after he had died. When I said that I had not, she asked me how I knew he was dead. At the time, I dismissed it by saying, “Of course, he was dead – he had a terminal disease!” Her statement rekindled a wish, however, that somehow something miraculous had happened and my father had not died.
Whether or not to allow children to be present at the moment of death is something that is often debated among the people closest to the dying parent and to the surviving children. Of course, this decision is something that we do not always have control over. Sometimes people die unexpectedly, while at other times we can attend to them around the clock hoping to be present at the moment of death, only to have the person let go when we step out of the room for a moment. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule on whether or not children should be “allowed” to watch their parent die. One thing to consider is how terrible the end might be and/or what the death might look like. Sometimes doctors, nurses, and hospice workers can offer some insight into this. For example, although I was not there at the time of my father’s death, I was told that it was relatively peaceful – he simply stopped breathing. When I last saw him, his physical appearance was not anything more grotesque than the way he had been looking in the weeks leading up to his death. He was thin, unable to speak, and was having trouble breathing. He was not in terrible pain or gasping for air, and he was not any more deformed than when I had seen him last. In short, other than the terrible anxiety of death looming and the trauma this creates, the last image I have of my father is not any more shocking or terrifying than the image I had of him the week before. I do not think the whole experience would have been any more traumatizing for me had I been there at the moment of death – at the same time I do not have any major regret that I was not there. I am thankful, however, that I had the chance to say goodbye to him the day before he died.
I was present for my mother’s death twenty years later. She was dying from colon cancer, had a brain tumor, and was experiencing terrible pain and seizures. As the end approached, a blockage developed and she started vomiting feces. She was gasping for air and shouting out in pain. Periodically, she would grab onto me and scream, “Do not let me die!” At the very end, she turned a mottled, bluish color, was making gurgling noises, had tears running down her face, and was gasping for air. This whole scene threatened to overwhelm my coping mechanisms at thirty years old. Therefore, I would probably not recommend that a child be exposed to a death bed scene such as this. It would likely be too overwhelming.
That having been said, more than anything else it is important to follow the desire of the child. When the death is thought to be approaching, the surviving parent or the caretaker for the child should sit the child down and explain that mommy or daddy is going to die. As much as is possible the parent should try to explain to the child what is likely to happen when the death occurs (“Mommy will stop breathing.”). The parent also should explain to the child what the dying parent will look like when he or she sees her now (“Mommy will have a mask on to help her to breathe”). The child can then be asked if he or she wants to go see mommy to say goodbye. If the child wants to go, then I think that he or she should be escorted to see the dying parent. However, an extra adult should be there to take the child out of the room (or home) if the situation becomes too intense for the child to bear. Somebody needs to be available to the child to answer questions as they arise and to provide comfort and reassurance. No child should be forced to witness the unbearable suffering of his or her parent. If the child says that he or she does not want to go see his or her parent, that decision should be respected. The truth is that try as we may (and it is important to try), there is no adequate way to say that final goodbye to someone we love. This is largely why we continue the bonds with people we love, even after death. Once we form these loving attachments, they are impossible to break.
The Experience of the Wake and the Funeral Mass
Sobs filled the Church, but the voice doing the reading was clear, sure, and strong:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way. Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me than you will also know my Father. (John 14: 1-8, The New American Bible).
The priest who had become a family friend during my father’s illness had come to the house shortly after my father’s death to speak with my mother about the funeral mass at which he was going to be officiating. I heard him ask my mother who would be doing the readings. I was horrified when I heard my mother’s response: “Kevin’s friend Stew will do one and my cousin Joanie will do the other.” As I felt my indignation bubbling up, I finally managed to blurt out, “Why is Joanie doing a reading? He was my daddy!” “Oh,” my mother said. “Did you want to do a reading?” “Yes,” I said. I was a good reader at school, often was asked to do the readings at the First Friday masses, and had just read a short story I had written to my class – it did not make sense at all to me that I would not read (when I was clearly capable) at such a major event as my father’s funeral mass. My mother looked over at the priest and asked, “Would that be OK?” Thankfully, he said “Sure, we can pick a short reading for her.” I was very pleased to be doing the reading at my father’s funeral. It allowed me to be a part of saying goodbye to my father. I also appreciated being at the wake and hearing about my father from other people. The fact that my maternal grandfather had died two years earlier made the process a little easier on my mother. At the time of her father’s death, I had not been allowed to go to the wake or the funeral. This upset me very much. I told my mother repeatedly that she did not let me say goodbye to my “playing grandpa.” In hindsight, it is understandable that she left me out because she was trying to help my father who was already sick, she was dealing with the fact that he was likely to die soon, and she was coping with saying goodbye to her father who at sixty-seven had just died suddenly and at a relatively young age. Nevertheless, at the time I was very angry and felt left out. As a result, when my father died, my mother knew that I was coming with her and staying with her throughout the entire process.
Whether or not to allow the children to attend the wake and/or the funeral mass is a decision that all surviving parents and/or caretakers of the surviving children face. Of the 20 people formally interviewed in my study, 18 attended the funeral service or the wake. The participants reported having a myriad of feelings while at their parents’ funeral services, including feeling “numb,” “disconnected,” and “in shock.” Caroline said, “It was almost out of body. I was still not accepting that this was what was happening to me. I was very interested and perceptive as to what other people were doing and who was there and what the whole process was in a kind of detached fashion.” Others reported feelings of embarrassment and the wish to disappear. Lauren put it this way: “I remember feeling sad and embarrassed. I didn’t want people to see me. I just wanted to be invisible. I distinctly remember that feeling, wishing that nobody knew what was going on. I was embarrassed and almost ashamed. I just wanted everyone to go away and to pretend it wasn’t happening.”
Some of the participants reported being fixated on what they were wearing during the wake. Caroline said, “I remember being concerned about what I was going to wear and not liking the outfit that I had to wear and wishing that I had something else and why didn’t we go shopping for this.” This preoccupation seems to have served as a distraction from the upsetting event.
Other people said that they were not happy that people from their school attended the funeral because they felt it was an invasion of privacy. Adrienne said, “I remember going to the mass and being really, really, upset because my entire school was there and I felt that they did not have the right to be there because they did not know daddy. So I spent the entire funeral being upset with them.” On the other hand, Caroline said that she was “impressed” that people from her school were there. I also felt loved and supported because so many of my classmates and teachers attended the wake, and my entire fourth grade class attended the funeral mass.
Several of the people interviewed said that at the wake or funeral they were “angry,” “annoyed,” and “bothered” by the insensitive comments of other people. Beatriz recounted hearing one of her relatives asking, “What will the girls do now that she is gone?” This comment only increased her anxiety which was already high because she was already worrying about what she was going to do now that her mother had died. Mary said that she could not understand why people at the wake were talking and laughing. It seemed insensitive to her – she wondered “Didn’t they know that my father had died?” I overheard relatives at the wake for my father condemning my brother and me to a life of drug addiction, alcoholism, and/or serious psychological difficulties. Although this momentarily increased my anxiety, hearing it propelled me to do two things: I committed to proving them wrong, and I later walked down to the local public library to see if there was any validity to their claims.
Some of the participants expressed that the funeral or wake was scary for various reasons. Beatriz said that she went to touch her mother’s arm and the coldness of the arm reinforced the realization that her mother was dead, which was hard for her to process. Fran told the story of being graveside at her father’s funeral. She said, “We go to the cemetery and there was this 18 gun salute. It scared the living Jesus out of me. If the whole thing was not scary enough to begin with, this was just the absolute.” I cannot help but believe that it might not have been as scary if someone had rehearsed with these children what would happen at the wake, funeral service, and cemetery so that they would be more prepared to handle what was to come. Nevertheless, all of the preparation in the world cannot prepare a child (or anyone, for that matter) adequately for the shock we feel when faced with the dead body of a loved one.
Several of the participants recounted stories in which different family members acted sensitively toward their needs during the services. Nicole remembered that at the funeral, her cousin called her over and told her to come and be with the procession, but she said that she didn’t want to – instead of forcing her to join, her family allowed her to stay in the back of the church, where she felt more comfortable, with her friend. Marcene said that since her father died right before Christmas, she remembered thinking to herself, “This is really going to ruin Christmas.” This was the first year that she had bought Christmas gifts for her parents, and she had been especially excited for Christmas Day because she wanted to give her father the book that she had bought for him. Seeing how upset she was at the prospect of not being able to give her father the book, her mother suggested that she put it in the coffin with him so that he would have it. She appreciated this compromise. Marcene was lucky because she had a mother who was very sensitive to her feelings. The idea that “This is sure going to ruin Christmas” was likely a test to see if she would be cared for, which would be determined by whether Christmas was ruined or not now that her father had died. Her mother passed the test by coming up with a way that she could give her father his Christmas gift and by celebrating Christmas that year.
Some of the participants said that they were grateful to have been at the wake and funeral services because they felt “loved,” “supported,” “amazed to see all of the people their parent had touched,” “it helped to punctuate the next stage for us” and “gave them closure.” Other participants expressed sentiments such as: “I had been experiencing so much sadness, you know, in the upcoming days and months until she died so it was kind of a way to just celebrate,” “I liked seeing how many people were connected to my dad,” “I think I needed to be there – it was sort of part of the grieving process,” and “having very loving aunts and uncles, I was just thrilled to be with them so that’s how I got through it, I guess, the comfort and the love from them.”
Many of the participants were present for the entire wake and funeral, while others attended a few minutes of one or the other. Joe described his experience this way:
The last day of the wake they brought us into the front parlor where he was laid out and we had been given something to be able to put in the coffin when we went up. So we were prepped (me and my two younger sisters), and when we came in it was like a little procession and the room was filled with people and I remember people sobbing and … I could hear them … I didn’t look at any of them because I was terrified. I had to be braced to lead my two younger sisters up to the box, up to the coffin, get up on the kneeler, look in the box, and hand in whatever card it was, it was some kind of prayer card that they gave me to put in – some token of goodbye – so that was our formal goodbye. And so we did what we were expected to do and then we were whisked away.
Of those who were only there for a few minutes, most said that those few minutes were enough; they reported feeling that more time spent at the services would have been too overwhelming for them. Liz, who was there for the wake, said that she probably would have liked to have stood outside. Sal, who was a teenager at the time, said that he did the obligatory hand-shaking and kissing at the beginning of the wake but then went into a different room and “hung out” with his friends.
Of those who did not go, some of the participants said that they felt that their parent’s decision to have them not go to the wake was appropriate and they did not feel like they missed anything. Vincent thought that to have been around the funeral services at such a young age would have only affected him negatively. He said that he would guess that seeing his dad lying there dead would not have made any sense to him and would have probably upset him. Several other participants remarked that they were grateful that they either did not go to the wake or that there was a closed coffin, as they did not think that they would have been able to “stand” seeing their parents’ dead bodies.
Jill, on the other hand, feels that being deprived of the opportunity to attend her father’s funeral robbed her of the chance for closure and contributes to ongoing nightmares stemming from her father’s death. Jill’s father was declared brain dead after an accident four years before his death. Over time, it became difficult for his family to visit him. When he died, his sister was notified and buried him without notifying Jill and her family. This prevented Jill from both saying a formal “goodbye” and from giving the eulogy that she had written four years earlier in preparation for his death.
When it comes to considering whether or not a child should attend the wake or funeral service, it is important to take the cue from the child and to be sensitive to the individual needs of children. Many children will choose to attend and some may even want to have an active role in the services. If a child decides that he or she wants to go to the services, it is important for the caretaker to prepare him or her for what he or she will experience (see, hear, smell, touch). It is also important for the caretaker to be able to adjust to the child’s ever-changing needs as the day unfolds. For example, it is probably a good idea to have somebody “on call” who would be able to answer the child’s questions as they arise and who would be able and willing to take the child home or at least out of the funeral service or wake if needed. Some of the people in this study felt that they needed to be there for closure or to feel the love and support from others, while other participants felt ashamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, and traumatized by the whole experience and/or by seeing the body. Whether the child’s attendance at his or her parent’s wake is going to be helpful or hurtful to that child depends a lot on his or her personality, the preparation beforehand he or she has received, and the support provided during the services.