By Emily Andrews
I swear to this day it wasn’t her.
When I was 8 years old, my friend was killed and I remember crying and being confused. I remember newspaper reporters coming to our class and asking us how we felt.
But mostly, I remember her.
She had been stabbed. Found three days after her disappearance. As an adult, I can only begin to imagine how she must have looked before her family chose to embalm her body. Reflection is a gift.
I walked into the funeral home for the viewing and several of my classmates ran out, one grabbed me by the arm, declaring it wasn’t her. Running to the casket I wasn’t able to wrap my mind around who this stranger was. Her hair was curly and long, not short and straight. She had a layer of makeup rivaling a woman ready for a night on the town. She looked like she had been put in a wedding dress.
My mother told me to hush in front of the grieving family, insisting it was her. This was how my friend now looked. There wasn’t some terrible mix up. My friend had died and this was supposed to help me deal with it.
Later, when my uncle passed away, he was also embalmed. He looked exactly as I knew him; it was like he was sleeping.
I was not allowed to go to my cousin’s funeral.
When I ask my mother why now, she says it was to protect me, that she didn’t want me traumatized. I only remember my cousin alive now, which I suppose was the point, I can’t seem to picture him dead. He was still more alive to me than my out of town relatives, I could still see his face. His voice has faded through the years, though.
As the years past and I grew older, other family members were cremated. No muss, no fuss, no body to consider. The body had started to feel less important to me anyway, the person is no more, not in the physical sense at least. It felt like I was going through the motions of grief and I don’t remember feeling the same sadness as when I stared at a body.
I contemplated all these experiences when first trying to explain death to my daughter. When she was four, our ferret passed away. Always wearing my heart on my sleeve, I cried tears that others may feel a waste on a simple pet. My daughter cried with me, saying I was wrong, that he was sleeping. She was mad when we took him out of the cage, thinking we were going to wake him up. I felt a little lost. I wanted so much to fall back on those classic clichés and talk of heaven and how the ferret was now in a glorious place with other little ferrets having a grand old time.
It took more out of me to resist the impulse of glittery heaven than I ever could have imagined it would.
We decided to cremate him. I explained to my daughter that he now lived in her heart. I told her she could do whatever she wanted to be happy that he was not suffering anymore. She understood, to a point. That is, until the urn arrived. She now tells everyone that the ferret lives in the urn, but lives there dead. She dances with the urn sometimes.
When a friend of ours lost her grandmother, we both went to the funeral. The body was embalmed, something I had not seen since childhood. I tried to prepare my daughter, but I was the one who caught my breath. “This is not her” running through my veins. My daughter, on the other hand, was fascinated. She was five at this point, interested in how the had heart stopped and how the blood stopped flowing. Outside, she tried to make her own funeral pyre with twigs and stones. I felt awkward, like I should not be letting her do these things, that I did not explain the solemnity of death properly.
I realize now that she was doing a better job of teaching me.
While it may be obvious to other people, I didn’t realize how much stock I put on the presence of a body until my husband’s uncle passed away. Before he was picked up, he lay in bed at home. We all sat around him telling stories and laughing at our wonderful memories. Once his body had left I broke down. The finality was inherent before, but obvious and painful now.
Again, my daughter took more pleasure in the ritualistic side of everything. She enjoyed the wake; she enjoyed talking about her great uncle, she enjoyed the food (why does grief make everyone hungry?) and she only cried a little when someone else would tear up.
She taught me that death is not a solemn, drab affair and crying is okay. I would feel guilty remembering happy times, thinking that it was somehow disrespectful to smile after death. My daughter takes her time. A year after the ferret died, she cried and said she was sad that he wasn’t here. Part of me wanted to gently tell her to get over it, but why? Why was I taught that grief had a deadline? Why can’t she still be sad? He was an awesome little guy.
As a child, death slapped me in the face and then was hidden from me. I knew it was a big deal, but I didn’t know to what depths of emotion I should go. Children have no qualms; they will feel and do as they please if allowed. I worried what to teach my daughter, but it is she, who has taught me so much about death.
“I don’t like death but I love skulls and I love everything.”
– Hope (age 6)
Emily Andrews breathes words. She was born in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and recently moved back after 20 years in Calgary. She loves to read and write. Her six year old daughter keeps her on her toes and her loving partner keeps her grounded.