a time to be born and a time to die....
"With living in between," I explained to the children.
Today was a day I will never forget. It was perhaps the hardest and most difficult discussion I have had to ever initiate in my career. The sweet and innocent faces of thirteen Kindergarten and 1st graders looked to me with anticipation, knowing there was big news I was about to share. I hesitated and looked to the teachers nodding as if to say, "Okay, here I go." I then proceeded to break the news that their classmate would no longer be attending school. Her body had grown too weak from cancer and she was expected to soon die.
The silence of a room full of children is something you don't hear often. One student commented on how quiet it was. "Yes, it is very quiet, isn't it?" I responded. As the children gathered their thoughts, I sat with them in silence. Then the questions came. "Can she feed herself?" "Does she get to watch t.v. in her room?" "Does she know she's going to die?" "Will there be a funeral?" "Will we see her in heaven?"
What amazing questions these young children asked! How open they were in sharing their thoughts and feelings! Perhaps by initiating this discussion, we gave them permission to do so. All too often parents, teachers and others think children can't possibly understand death. I don't think we give them enough credit sometimes and out of our own discomfort with the topic avoid such discussions. Yet, death is a part of the life cyle of all living things. If we are so afraid to talk about death with children, children will learn to fear death rather than accept it as a natural part of life.
I have had many experiences with death. I've lost grandparents, a great aunt, a cousin, a step-brother, friends, two unborn children of my own, and many pets. I am all too familiar with death and the grief process - having experienced it first-hand many times. Yet, perhaps those experiences are what gave me the strength to talk about death so candidly and openly with these young children today, and for that I am grateful. If my experiences can help someone else as painful as they may have been for me, then it is all worth it.
"A tummy bug is very different from cancer, right?" one child asked. "That's right," I responded. "We all get sick sometimes with tummy bugs, the flu, chicken pox,....but cancer is very different." I went on to explain that there are many different kinds of cancer and many things doctors can do to treat cancer and even cure it in many cases, but sometimes they can't and people do die. I assured the kids that there is nothing they did to cause their classmate to get sick - even if they said something mean to her or cut in front of her in line - none of these things could cause her to get cancer. I also explained that cancer isn't contagious, and they can't catch it from her or anyone else.
As I sat there explaining about cancer, I thought about my own daughter's recent surgery and how ironic it is that I was having this discussion as I was awaiting the biopsy results of her lymph node. I wondered if the pathology report would bring relief from the worry I'd been carrying all week, or if I too would experience the shocking reality of having a child with cancer. I tried to not let my mind go there and continued....
"It is so sad when someone dies and it's okay to cry. I have cried too." I think of the time I sat at my desk reading the Caring Bridge website, allowing the tears to flow as I read the words of this child's grieving father.
The students shared memories of others they have known who have died - pets, grandparents, and others. We then shared memories about their classmate - how kind, caring, helpful, and compassionate she is. We talked about how these memories are what we will hold onto and keep with us to remember our friend when she does pass, and in this way she will always be with us - in our hearts and in our minds. I had flashes of the smiling faces of loved ones I have lost pass through my mind as we shared these memories. I told the kids that at first these memories may make them sad, but in time the sadness will heal and their memories will bring comfort.
The students were going to make cards for their classmate and then go out to play on the playground. As adults, we might wonder how children could just go play after hearing such heavy news. I let the children know that even though this very sad thing is happening that it's okay to still play, have fun, and be happy. I remembered the joy I felt when I went dancing soon after my step-brother died and the guilt that came as a result. I didn't want the kids to feel guilty for experiencing joy while grieving the loss of their friend.
There is a time to be born, a time to die....and in between is living.
There is a time to weep and a time to laugh....
To everything there is a season. Life does go on, and it's okay to have laughter along with the tears.