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The Reason for the Season

The Reason for the Season

I loathe the culture war centered around “putting the ‘Christ’ back into ‘Christmas'”. However, I want my children to know the reason behind every season. Despite them rolling their eyes, I always discuss with my kids the significance of cultural events and holidays.

It’s worth the eye rolls for my kids to understand why of cultural markers and holidays.

This applies most especially to holidays as “abstract” as Veteran’s Day. Yesterday, my older kid jumped with joy as she celebrated having THREE DAYS OF MORNING TELEVISION this weekend. Uncharacteristically, I held my tongue so as not to deflate her joy. I’ll save the posturing about Veteran’s Day for the actual day.

I’ve always been (morbidly) fascinated by WWI, which came to an end 101 years ago, today, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. This was the first war in which men were able to massacre acres of men without catching sight of each other. The wide-scale use of machine guns, tanks, airplanes and trench warfare that wasted a generation rooted in agreements and misunderstandings between insecure, rich white men trying to keep their place in the upper-class mastering the universe.

Talk about toxic masculinity.

WWI was the end of an era (for the Western, Caucasian paradigm) in which impersonal savagery replaced, well…personal savagery.

In contrast to WWII which created the greatest generation of stoic, productive veterans, the survivors of WWI fostered a culture of tremendous self-reflection. Poets, artists and writers emerged from the trench horror facing a world without meaning. Battlefield savagery created direct artistic movements of nihilism, abstraction and darkness; because after all they had expereinced, how could artistic expression ever again just be “beauty and expression for escapist enjoyment” anymore? WWI created modernism, and everything changed.

Today, Veteran’s Day is known as Remembrance Day in Canada and Armistice Day in Europe. Poppies are worn on the lapel as a symbol of remembrance (“lest we forget”) to commemorate the vast fields of poppies that sprung up across the mass graves in Belgium and France. The poppies were the inspiration for John McCrae’s poem, “Fields of Flanders.”

Last year, in France, French President Emmanuel Macron declared at the ceremony marking the end of WWI, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”

I couldn’t agree more – patriotism is the opposite of nationalism. And nationalism led to WWI.

Because nationalism (setting national gain over international citizenship) is what caused WWI. And nationalism could easily cause another unimaginable world conflagration. This is what most scares me about Trump and what most scares me about my kids’ generation not having a grasp of history. I pray neither of my children ever has to endure a generational war (although let’s not forget that American forces are waging battles around the world, today).

In order to raise “good” kids, I’m constantly preoccupied with their sense of gratitude and appreciation. So, yeah: I’ll always lecture them on history and teach the significance of world citizenship. They’ll be good kids if they grasp “world citizenship” and that patriotism means NOT allowing insecure, rich men to repeat history and take us down the path of selfish nationalism, again.

We’re all in this together…the entire world.

I don’t exactly know how to talk with my kids about such disturbing issues as massive loss of life in the name of freedom (and on behalf of European royals and leaders). But I’ll lecture my kids and will embrace the eye rolls in the interest of world citizenship and patriotism. I’ll recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, even though it’ll mean nothing to my kids.

For now.

And I’ll keep doing so…to protect them and their future.

Discussing Death with Kids in 5 Easy Steps

Discussing Death with Kids in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a neighbor died, which opened the door for discussing death with kids in five simple steps:

  1. Just talk about it – if you’re sad or mad or depressed or even happy or relieved or whatever. Emotions are all okay.
  2. Just talk about it – what you think happens after death in whatever way makes sense to you.
  3. Just talk about it – my death, your death, everyone’s death.
  4. Just talk about it – how life goes one for the rest of us.
  5. Just talk about it – the ways your life was changed by the deceased.

We took them to the funeral where they were by far the youngest attendees. We walked in last (that’s how we roll) and I imagine many people thought, “are you crazy having your kids at a funeral?” In addition to the torture of cultural experiences, a funeral is another opportunity for memorable, learning memories.

But I think discussing death with kids is important – for all our emotional health.

Having lost my father at age 8 and then my mother at age 33, I was a “young orphan”. And I’ve thought a lot about death and our (as Americans) relationship with death.

A few months after the death of my mother, a friend asked “How are you doing? Or, wait – do you want me to talk about it? Are you okay talking about it? Is that wrong for me to ask? Oh, shoot. Sorry I brought her up.”

“Yes! Please ask me about it. Especially a few months down the line, please – ask away. It feels good to talk about her. I won’t get emotional – or if I do, so be it. But it feels good NOT to ignore the fact that I’ve had a massive life change a few months ago and now everyone walks on eggshells around me.”

That was eye-opening. I wanted to talk about my mom and the experience of losing her or getting accustomed to my new normal.

We suck at death in America. We’re uncomfortable addressing it with those in mourning (are we afraid of emotion, entirely?), think we’re bringing down the people who are going through a loss, afraid to discuss “nothing” after being selfish our entire lives, avoid thinking about our demise, and don’t know how to healthily talk about it or approach it. And certainly discussing death with kids is a topic avoided until it’s in our faces.

Look at the hysteria over “death panels” during the Obamacare debates and Sarah Palin’s talking points about “killing Grandma” and the fact that so much money is spent to prolong life by a few months when in reality we should be considering how best to healthily accept the end of life with quality rather than reflexively thinking that living on life support would be the active choice anybody actually wants. So discussing death with kids freaks us all out.

But I digress.

Unlike many other societies throughout world history, we don’t look at death as part of life. It’s to be avoided, so discussing death with kids is definitely taboo.

But accepting death and letting sadness flow through us is healthy.

Back to kids at a funeral.

I want my own to know that several things surrounding death are healthy –

  1. To be sad.
  2. To cry and to see other people cry.
  3. To know that death happens.
  4. To think fondly of the people we’ve lost and not repress their memory.
  5. To learn from the gifts of those we’ve lost.

Our loss was that of an elderly neighbor. She didn’t actually like my partner and I very much (long story for another post) but she was welcoming and loving to our kids (and still civil with us).

Moreover, she was an indefatigably generous woman who volunteered throughout the community and set a great example for the way I’d like to live as a septegenarian and octogenarian.

Most important (for her and her family) she lived a rich life full of family and experiences. She died ten years earlier than she should have, but at 87 she’d lived an enviable life.

So I emulate her.

And because she was a constant in my kids’ life, I wanted them to experience her death.

When we, as a family, paid respects to her visiting family, my older kid excitedly asked, “Can we go to the funeral?” like it was a birthday party.

Later, when I said, “Um, Sweets, that wasn’t really the way…”

She said (without rolling her eyes), “Yes, I know Daddy. That wasn’t the way to talk about a funeral.”

Glad we established that.

We checked out a book at the library entitled The Funeral. It was sweet to see a funeral through the eyes of an 8-year-old, except that this 8yo was able to run around in the church playground during the entire service and got to eat lots of refreshments and cookies. (I planned to force them to sit quietly in the church for at least 45 minutes.)

So of course my kid asked, “Will there be refreshments?”

“Yes, sweetie, I think there will be refreshments, but that’s not what a funeral is actually about.”

“Daddy, I know!” (This time, there was an eye roll.)

The night before the funeral, my younger kid said, “Tomorrow will be sad.”

“Yes it will,” my partner said. “But that’s okay.”

We dressed up and drove to the beautiful New England church.

The service clipped along and had the right balance of celebration and mourning. A few hymns were sung, the minister welcomed those in attendance who weren’t comfortable with religion and stated, “We are about freedom, here – the freedom to honor the human experience in whatever way is comfortable for you.”

There was a little Jesus, a little God, a little worship, a few laughs and a lot of humanity.

Ultimately, my kids have had enough church experiences that they knew what to expect. They were antsy, but not obnoxious. They heard words like death and mourning and God and whatnot.

When the deceased woman’s son broke down, briefly, during his eulogy, my older kid turned to me with a gasp, “Is he crying?”

“Yes,” I said.

Her eyes widened as she shifted to see my face straight on.

“Are you crying?” she asked.

“A little bit,” I said.

My eyes were wet. I was thinking about my mom, my life, my kids growing too quickly, my aging in-laws, and then also about how awesome this woman was (even if she didn’t really like me) and my kids’ loss of the intriguing old woman who lived nearby and always welcomed them into her home. (Not to mention the time they walked right into her house when she wasn’t there because they wanted to see the view from her second floor…unbeknownst to us.)

These are all losses and part of life’s journey.

And it’s good to be sad.

And for my kids to see me sad.

When there were references to the incident that applied to our falling out with the deceased, my partner and I shared a smirk. Bygones were bygones. Let’s celebrate life of an inspirational woman.

And afterward, there were refreshments.

Except my kids were disgusted by the fancy finger foods that included smoked salmon mini toasts, cucumber sandwiches, egg salad, fresh vegetables and turkey mini-wraps.

There were cookies, tho. And my little monsters were forced to eat some cucumber sandwiches and raw veggies before having about six cookies.

Each.

My younger kid returned twice, on his own, to the display of pictures to see our neighbor in her prime and through her years – piloting a sailboat in the 1950’s, laughing with her children as a young mother, and laughing with her children as an old woman.

We greeted all of her kids, all of whom did a good job brushing past the fact that she wasn’t our biggest fan, and thanked us for coming.

It was important to us – to honor her, and to teach our kids about death and loss and mourning and sadness.

I said as much to one of the daughters-in-law, and she said, “That’s beautiful that my mother-in-law’s life keeps on teaching. That’s just what she’d hope for.”

We left feeling fulfilled. And sad. And that’s okay.

And full of cookies.

When you’ve got friends who’ve had loss, I ask you not to shy away from talking about the loss. It’s good to sit in sadness with those who mourn.

It brings us all closer and helps the grieving process.

Death shouldn’t be shunned or ignored. It should be discussed and embraced and accepted and acknowledged.

It’s healthier for us all that way.