It was at the beginning of my grad school journey that my mid-life fears of death actually began. One of my first friends in grad school, Alissa, died of cancer just four months after our first class, a weeklong on-campus intensive class. She knew she was dying, but at age 48 decided to pursue a master’s in counseling nonetheless. She wasn’t going to sit around and wait to see what happened, she had said. She told me she knew God would heal her, she just didn’t know if it would be an earthly or heavenly healing. Our intensive course was the last week of July and Alissa died in her home in Pittsburgh just after the New Year.
Recently studying through the human growth and development section of The Encyclopedia of Counseling in preparation for the National Counseling Exam, I landed on a question that made me feel ever-so-known. The multiple-choice question, related to Erikson’s stages of identity development, simply stated: “The fear of death ______” followed by the four potential responses. The correct answer turned out to be “is greatest during middle age.”
Although I had completed all of the necessary courses toward my master’s degree (minus internships), I somehow missed this information. Quickly approaching my fortieth birthday and witnessing the untimely and unexpected deaths of handfuls of people around me in the past few years, I have had a bit of an existential crisis revolving around the fear of my inevitable death. Knowing that I am a developmentally “normal” middle-aged woman brought such comfort as I sat in my car studying during my daughter’s dance lesson.
While I’m evidently on track in working through my fears of death at middle age, my children have seen their (un)fair share of grief as well. When our children’s preschool teacher, Miss Kristy, died — when our elderly neighbors, Charlie and Leah and Elmer, died — when the fourth grade teacher, Mr. Pegher, died — when their Great-Granddad died — and even when our labrador retriever died, it has felt like entering an unfamiliar wilderness to talk with them about it each time. I wondered if there ought to be a minimum age requirement for talking with children about death. Is it too great a weight for such small people to carry?
My grad school studies sent me to the research on best practices for helping children process grief, where I discovered that parents and caregivers play the most significant role. I learned that creating space for children to talk about their loss is essential. I learned to use concrete terms, rather than the ethereal “passing away.” Yet at the same time, I feel I have no language, let alone substantial answers, to offer in response to their questions. With uncertainty, I step into the wilderness with them, and we process our grief in tandem:
Out of the blue at dinner my son asked,
“Why do all the good people die?”
Yes, buddy, this is
we all carry
on our backs
wanting to hold our loved ones,
to lay them down.
“In Sunday school,” he says,
“Dr. Bolton said that at mass
when we worship
with all the angels and saints.
I sometimes like to imagine
Boaz [our deceased and deeply beloved black Labrador]
sitting beside me on the pew.”
My husband gets teary and takes
a drink of water.
Are animals included in the worship
as well? I wonder
while in my mind I see
filled up, the cathedral ceiling
with the voices and presence
of all those gone before us.
The fragrance of incense rising,
maybe they do sit beside us
our voices blending,
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to people of good will.”
And do they echo the cantor
along with us?
Maybe the space between this life and the next
is as thin as the cord that tethers us
to this world?
“All the angels and saints,”
Ephraim says again.
“And dogs!” Caedmon chimes in.
“And George Washington!”
shouts my six-year-old Emmaea.
“Well, maybe not,” my middle son ponders,
“because he had slaves...”
and then thinking some more,
“but he never told a lie.”
And so we eat our spaghetti
pondering the folklore and mystery
concluding our supper in prayer,
as we do each night as best we can,
each taking turn to name
one person to pray for,
raising our hands, palms up,
in which we hold our loved ones,
to the ceiling,
“And we lift them up to the Lord.”
We muddle through our grief together and I am reminded that we don’t need to have words to pray in the midst of grief or suffering. “The Spirit in us helps us in our weakness,” the author of Romans writes, “with groanings too deep for words,” as we hope for the redemption of our bodies. While the Scripture offers hope and my NCE prep comforts me to know I’m not alone, they maybe do not completely resolve my fears of death, my fear that maybe I too will have a long-suffering illness or experience a freak accident that will steal me from my children and husband. And yet, I hold the image from my eldest son each week at mass, in my open hands the loved ones who have gone before, and all the angels and saints, joining with us to sing:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you, we bless you,
we adore you, we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory.
Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world,
have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world,
receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father,
have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.