I was thinking about my first funeral the other day. My initial thoughts were that for most people, their first funeral was more than likely a grandparent or an elder relative. A small survey amongst my friends confirmed for me that this mostly holds true. I also found that for most, their first funeral was at around the age of eight or nine.
I am the exception. My first funeral was not a grandparent or an elder relative. I lost two of my grandparents before I was born, and my third after only meeting him once and at the age of five. I was thankful to have my Abuelita (grandmother in Spanish) until 2008. I have been to many, many funerals in my life. Most were lives cut tragically short. My first funeral is no exception. I will describe what this was like, but not before warning you. You should not continue reading if death is disturbing to you, especially if it involves a baby.
You’ve been warned.
I was about eight years old when I went to my first funeral. So far, we’re in the realm of averages for funeral attendance. Here’s where it all ends: My first funeral was for a young woman and her stillborn baby. I can’t even remember this young woman’s name. I cannot recall if her baby girl was given a name, either. I cannot even remember her husband’s name. But, I can remember the name of their daughter that was left to live with the aftermath of losing her mother at the age of four. I remember her little face filled with sorrow and confusion. Her bob haircut and bangs there were cut bluntly across her forehead, just like mine were.
Her mother was in her mid to late 20’s. I’m pretty sure she was around 24 – 26 years of age. She was a Jehovah’s Witness, as I was when I was a kid. She belonged to our congregation and was full-term when she went into labor with her second daughter. Her baby died. All that I know is that she had severe bleeding, beyond that I am unsure as to what exactly happened. However, since she was a Jehovah’s Witness she would have signed a legal medical directive to refuse all blood transfusions. A blood transfusion or blood substitute could have saved her life, but since I am not privy to the details, I can’t say for certain. It was her deeply held belief and it more than likely was a contributing cause to her death. I could write a lot more about what I think about this, out of respect for her choice and her life and others I know, I will not.
So, there is the context in which I attended my first funeral at the age of eight. It was an open casket funeral with a lot of mourners. The woman had beautiful dark hair, much like the baby in her arms and the daughter she left behind. I remember she was wearing a pretty dress and her baby, with its blue and dry little lips, was cradled in her arms. Forever.
This image has stuck with me all these years. Those images. It’s sort of hard to erase them from your mind. It was traumatic. Even now, I can’t shake that sense of sadness for that little girl left behind. The longing in her eyes for her mother to come back to her. I have no idea what ever happened to that little girl. Her father remarried rather quickly and had more children, too. The hair color of the family always stuck with me because that little girl’s new stepmom had blonde hair. And her new little half-siblings had very light hair. It was a reinforcement that she was the only thing left behind from her mother’s union to her father.
This funeral introduced me to the fact that babies died sometimes. That mothers could die, too.
Later, I would discover that my great-grandmother also died during childbirth and left behind several children, including a very small child that had Down Syndrome and was completely dependent on his mother. They say he died of a broken heart after her passing. Or maybe it’s just that no one knew how to meet his needs and care for him in the 1920’s in Mexico.
Over the years, I’d attend many more funerals. Accidents. A shooting. Cancer. Accidental overdose. Heart attacks. And many more accidents. But even now as an adult, I don’t think I could ever be prepared for a mother and child together in death. It is a sorrow of the deepest kind. More than I can even imagine. For something that was meant to bring so much joy, it was marked with incredible grief and trauma.
I guess the only advice I can give, thanks to one of my friends that is a Funeral Director, is to talk to your children about death when appropriate. If there is a death in the family or someone in your community, talk to your child about death and the funeral process and rituals. Give your child a choice as to whether or not they would like to attend. Respect his or her wishes. And then talk some more. Keep the line open to speak about death and relieve any fears he or she might have. Death is a part of life. It’s a cycle and we will all face it in one way or another. Having a healthy perspective on this part of life will only help your child in the long run.