Talking with children about death

Today, many Americans live until their 30s or 40s before experiencing the death of a close family member or friend. The advent of antibiotics and vaccines in the early- and mid-20th century substantially decreased death rates while increasing life expectancy. And in the past 50 years, advances in medicine have grown exponentially, each development laying the foundation for future ones.

A childhood friend of mine who died of leukemia in the 1970s would likely survive today. Life expectancy for people with Down syndrome has increased more than twofold since 1980 because of the development of treatments for conditions, such as heart and gastrointestinal, that afflict the entire population.

But, of course, there are no guarantees.

Two weekends ago, we learned that a family at the school of our 11-year-old son, Leif, had been involved in an accident. The student’s father had died and the student herself did not survive her injuries and was removed from life support after organ donation.

The child’s only sibling is in Leif’s class and the school took great care when discussing the tragedy with the classmates. Afterward, Leif asked me for a hug, but seemed otherwise unaffected. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t feel real to him. But that may change, particularly when full-time, in-person instruction resumes.

In an effort to be supportive, Leif told his classmate during a virtual discussion that he knows how she feels, reminding me of the saying, “Better the friend who says the wrong thing than those who say nothing at all.” That afternoon, I told Leif there’s no way he can know what it’s like to lose a parent and sibling in the same week.

The fact is, none of us know how someone who is grieving feels, even if we ourselves have experienced great loss. Grief is unique to each person and each loss.

I don’t pretend to have the answers to fundamental existential questions, but having those answers isn’t necessary. I am always willing to honestly discuss anything with my children, even when the topics become complex.

To gauge what a young child is ready to learn, I respond to inquiries such as, “Where do babies come from? What happens when we die?” by asking, “What do you think?” Leif is the only one who’s ever retorted, “I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking you!”

Leif’s next older brother, Jules, who also went to the same school, called him from college after the deaths and they talked at length. My second son, Hugo, told me he’s glad we openly discuss mortality in our family. He feels it makes living easier.

If there is a memorial service for this father and child, we will certainly attend, even if, due to the pandemic, it’s months from now. It is important to show up for survivors, both at a funeral and in the months to follow.

The last funeral all five of my children and I attended was for a dear friend’s mother just before Ohio went into lockdown. My adult children have been to enough funerals to know what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do when they have to plan mine. Which, of course, we’ve discussed.

And that is the natural order of things: children burying parents who have lived full and long lives. Laying a child to rest is not.

But Death obeys no rules. Why did my children and I not die 20 years ago when our car slid across five busy lanes of interstate traffic just south of Chicago? And why did this family experience unfathomable tragedy on a simple outing?

In 2016, The Guardian published a piece by David Ferguson in which he describes grief with poignant accuracy. He writes, “There’s nothing good that comes out of the death of someone you love, but I have learned this: the magnitude and bottomlessness of the pain you feel is a testament to the love you shared.”

And he pines for the Victorian traditions of black ribbons being placed on front doors and worn as armbands and hat bands as “a signal to the world that says: ‘Be kind to me. I am in pain.’”

The only way through grief, which is not a sprint, but a marathon, is to grieve. And as communities, we need to be gentle to those making that journey. Never expect nor insist they follow any preordained protocols while experiencing the rawest of all emotions.

Be kind to them, they are in pain.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 7, 2021.


Love for winter doesn’t melt

My first four babies wore cloth diapers, which I washed weekly and hung on a line in the backyard. The singular satisfaction of seeing stains disappear after a few hours in the bright sun is both simple and immeasurable.

I feel similarly when the sun melts the residual snow on sidewalks I’ve shoveled. From the chair at my desk, I periodically stand up and look over the front porch roof to admire exposed pathways, the sun evaporating what my shovel could not remove.

Hearty winters are one of the things I liked about moving to Northeast Ohio. For nearly a decade, I lived in Columbus where winters are grayer than they are here. Making it worse, it rarely snows in Columbus and when it does, it often quickly melts. 

During my first 14 winters here, bright snow made the darkest months of the year cheerful and fun. My children learned to ski at Boston Mills and Brandywine ski resorts where, yes, the slopes are small, but the skills needed are the same as anywhere. In recent years my big boys have skied on slopes across the country.

Since 2014, however, winters here have been annoyingly mild. Far too many weeks have been as dismally gray and snowless as they are in Columbus. Temperatures have not been cold enough to provide the important benefit of killing off invasive plant and insect species or reducing the pesky indigenous ones. Northeast Ohio pet owners know too well that treatments to prevent ticks and fleas must now be given 12 months of the year. 

Last fall, I received a rare phone call from my stepfather. He lives in Dallas, but grew up and lived much of his adult life in Ohio. 

“I could never live in Ohio again, I can’t take the winters,” he told me. 

“Pshaw,” I told him, “We hardly get below freezing here anymore.” 

Perhaps trickster gods overheard our conversation because 2021 is a banner year for winter in Ohio — and in Texas. Snow and cold have repeatedly visited Akron and set records in the Lone Star State. My son Claude is studying at Texas A&M and several days this past week endured rolling blackouts when it was colder there than here. 

Many, like me, love a good winter. Others do not. But remember, it could be worse. 

Last weekend, I took my two youngest children to Rockford, Illinois, to visit my second son, Hugo, his girlfriend, Claudia, and (most importantly) their dog, Rutabaga. During our four days there, the temperature never rose above 2 degrees. Claudia tells us it’s a typical winter for northern Illinois. 

On our way home, I accidentally chose a GPS route that took us through downtown Chicago. It was the first time Leif and Lyra had seen the city, but they didn’t see much. The region was enveloped in whiteout conditions. With traffic crawling at 3 miles per hour, it was safe driving until we reached the Chicago Skyway where traffic let up. Then, and for the next hour, I white-knuckled us through the storm on roads not recently plowed. 

Twenty years ago almost to the day, I was in the left lane on the outer belt south of Chicago when I hit black ice. My car spun so that I was facing oncoming traffic and then slid sideways across five busy lanes of traffic before hitting the guardrail next to the right lane. 

My three children, ages 7, 4 and 6 months, were sleeping in car seats behind me. They awoke at the moment of impact. A couple who stopped to see if we were OK were nearly as shaken from watching our accident as I was having experienced it. 

The car’s hood had been knocked sideways and no longer lined up with the latch. The couple helped me bungie-cord the hood to the grille and we all continued on. I crossed the border to Indiana and picked up speed when suddenly the car hood flew up and smashed the windshield.

None of my children were asleep that time and they all screamed before sobbing.

Flanking both sides of the interstate were farm fields covered in waist-deep snow. The nearest exit was too far to walk to with three small children and, like many people 20 years ago, I didn’t have a cellphone. 

I have family in LaPorte, Indiana, not far from the Illinois border. I again tied the hood down, this time to the bumper, and slowly drove in the right lane with my hazards on. Before long, but not far from a toll station, the hood again flew up, smashed the windshield and sent bits of safety glass into the car. 

Somehow, I made it to the toll station where the very kind workers let me call my grand-aunt and grand-uncle who came and collected us. 

Then, as now, we made it home safely, this time just before last week’s big storm. Now, as then, the dangers of driving in snow and ice have not diminished my love of a vigorous winter. 

I spent this morning clearing the snow from the storm. Several times since, I’ve peered out my office window to admire entire slabs of sidewalk being slowly revealed by winter sunshine. Such satisfaction.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on February 21, 2021.