On Thursday, the husband’s Aunt Maureen passed away after a battle with lung cancer.
On Sunday afternoon we were all in Chicago at the wake. A real, no kidding, Chicago Irish wake.
The whole family and close friends, kids included, spent the afternoon and evening visiting and kneeling in prayer and playing Uno, all with Aunt Maureen’s body visible there in the corner.
And my kids, aged 5 months to twelve years, were unfazed.
Wakes and funerals were not a part of my upbringing, I never saw a dead body or even went to a Catholic funeral as a child. Death was something mysterious and unknown. When people died, they just went away. But the husband figures he went to a wake once a month growing up in Chicago. Death and grief were a part of his childhood.
We have decided that that’s what we want for our own kids. We don’t want to hide death from them. We want to help them understand and process it appropriately.
1. People have a soul.
The soul is what animates the body. Aunt Maureen’s soul wasn’t in her body anymore, it went to eternal life. Seeing the body of someone they knew well helped our kids understand this. We told them what to expect ahead of time. When we arrived at the wake, the kids knelt before the coffin and said a prayer for the repose of her soul. Then they went off to play with their cousins. I can’t speak for all kids, of course, but I’m pretty sure my kids weren’t uncomfortable with it because we weren’t uncomfortable with it.
2. Grief is okay.
More upsetting to my kids than seeing the body was seeing how upset their Gramma and Papa and other family members were. It brought the older ones to tears themselves. But I don’t think grief is something that needs to be hidden from children. Watching other people process grief will help my kids understand how to process it for themselves.
3. We Can Help.
Taking a family of nine halfway across the country on a couple of days’ notice is no mean feat. But it was worth the effort. My kids could see how much it meant to their grandparents and to Uncle Dave to have us all there with him. Having children at the wake is a visible sign that life does go on. There’s a lot of comfort there. And distraction. And comfort. Seeing their dad as a pallbearer, actually helping to bear the weight of Aunt Maureen’s death for our family is a powerful visual sign for our children.
4. The Mass is a Celebration in any Context.
It’s easy to focus on happy sacraments. We all want our kids to be a part of baptisms and weddings. But I also want my kids to see funeral Masses. I want them to see the way our faith brings us together as the Body of Christ to support each other in tough times, not just good times.
We’re back home now. I asked the kids in the car on the way home from the airport what they thought of our trip.
Betty, 10, said, “I thought it meant a lot to our family for us to be there.”
Anita, 4, said, “I was happy to see Aunt Maureen, but I was sad too.”
Frankie, 2, said, “I like a eat a cookies.”
So . . . we each learned something.