Last week, I found my son crying in his bed as he went to sleep. I rushed over to him and tried to soothe him. I didn't know why he was crying and showing so much emotion. My heart was breaking. After much pleading and prodding, he finally confessed as to the reason. Earlier in the night, as he had turned on the light in the playroom, he had seen his late grandmother's eyeglasses piled up in a heap on a shelf. Upon seeing her eyeglasses, it had hit him, months later, that his grandmother had passed away and that he would never see her again.
A little over four months ago my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly in Delhi, India. Thankfully my husband made it to her bedside as she drew her last breaths. I brought the children with me so we could pay our last respects for the very important Hindu rituals on the tenth, eleventh and twelfth days that follow the passing of a loved one. Before, during and after our trip, we had discussed my mother-in-law's death with the kids, what it meant, whether there is an afterlife, and our feelings of sadness. But it was the sanitized, non-alarming version.
Death is a very difficult concept to explain to children and even more so in our manicured, curated, picture-perfect society. When my mother-in-law passed away, I was in India. As part of the rituals and similar to a wake, my mother-in-law's body was displayed in her favorite sari for friends and family to pay their last respects. Clouded by my grief, I remembered that a few cousins had brought their young children to the viewing. I was shocked. I remembered thinking what seeing a dead body would do to these children at such a young age and how I would never expose my children to this. But the children at the viewing seemed to not be phased by the whole episode. Dutifully they paid their respects and then carried on as only children can do; they played, laughed and had fun.
In hopes to protect my children from discomfort, pain, sadness and ultimately, grief, I feel like I may have missed the mark entirely. Perhaps the way that other societies expose children to the realities of death, cancer, illness, and poverty better prepares them for the journey that is life. While I'm loathe to talk in generalities, it seems like that there is a culture in the United States of trying to preserve a child's childhood to make it as perfect as possible. In the era of helicopter parenting, we fail to see that our children are stronger than we think they are and more resilient than we give them credit for. From the Tooth Fairy to Santa Claus, American childhoods are marked by illusions of grandeur, magic, and fantasy. Don't get me wrong, I love playing along with the masquerade of Santa Claus, but what messages are we sending children when we only expose them to fiction while simultaneously protecting and shielding them from reality?
So when my son, months later came upon the eyeglasses and made the leap for himself of what these eyeglasses signified, it was a reminder to me that reality catches up with even our littlest citizens despite vain attempts at protection. That while his grief was not immediate or showy, my son had absorbed the meaning and permanence of his grandmother's death and because of this, he was sad and grieving. And that despite the tears, sadness and grief, my son ultimately will be a little more prepared for life and will become stronger and more resilient in facing our new reality, without his beloved grandmother but with her eyeglasses. And maybe that's not so bad after all.