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Introducing My Son to My Mother and Death

When she was just 48, my mother died in her sister's house in Limerick, Ireland. It was expected: she had cancer and had gone "back home" a few days before, expressly to die and be buried there. I wasn't with her when it happened, because I thought she had more time.

When I arrived the next morning from Amsterdam, my mother was stretched out on a bed in the living room, looking more peaceful than she had in a while, and certainly more than the last time I'd seen her, when she and my sister boarded the plane to Ireland.

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It was jarring, but also immediately healing, to see her again. Had her body been removed from the house to a funeral home right after she'd died or, worse, shut away in a closed coffin without my seeing or touching her again, I suspect I'd be stuck in some Twilight Zone loop where she just disappeared onto an airplane, oxygen tank in tow.

Instead, she looked pain free and beautifully alive in a very natural and familiar family environment.

Everyone—my aunts, uncles, father, sister and cousins—milled about my mother, talking, reciting the Rosary, drinking tea. But they gave me time alone with her to let me take it in. I think we absorb things at just the rate we are able and, for a few minutes, I couldn't comprehend that she would not open her eyes and greet me.

Culturally, we are inclined to resist including children in death rituals, including funerals and viewings.

But then one of my cousins, 2 at the time, walked into the room. Yellow dungarees, bouncy, squiggly curls. He looked at me, held up his hands and said, in a matter of fact, toddler voice, "Peggy gone."

Of course, he had only a basic understanding of what it was to be dead, but the simplicity of his explanation, even in my fog at the time, struck me as wise. He wasn't scared or traumatized to have a body in his house. Nobody tried to keep him away. To him, my mom, who loved him and was not scary, had been there, and now she wasn't anymore. End of story.

I relayed this memory to the same cousin over several pints last week in my favorite pub in Galway during a family trip to Ireland. Now in his mid-20s, he first (jokingly) apologized for being obtuse but appreciated that, yes, he was raised with a healthy attitude about something many Americans don't feel comfortable with: death.

Culturally, we are inclined to resist including children in death rituals, including funerals and viewings. While losing a loved one is painful, the ways in which we honor and remember the dead are often beautiful and fully within the capacity of children to appreciate and be soothed by.

My first real experience with a person dying came just a few years before my mother's death, when her own mother died—somewhat ironically, in the same house. When I approached my grandmother's body with apprehension, my mom told me not to be afraid of her. "She loved you in life," she said. "She'd never hurt you in death."

My 4- and 3-year-olds' grasp of death extends only as far as an unfortunate mouse they recently spotted on the sidewalk. I'd broached the subject before—not in a spiritual sense, but only because "you'll get an ow" didn't seem sufficient when explaining the dangers of falling out of windows or biking in front of a bus. The mouse illustrated well the permanence of the condition when you are dead.

But on a more personal level, my son and I had a conversation recently about my mother. My father has remarried since she died, and my children, rightfully so, regard his wife as their grandmother. More than a by-product of blood relation, "grandmother" is a role and one that she fulfills gracefully and generously. They are lucky to have her in their lives.

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Still, she is not my mother, and her influence did not inform my upbringing, did not shape my developing character, does not feature in my childhood memories, and my children can't make sense of me or themselves without knowing where I—where they—come from.

My own mother deserves a seat at the party, and so I felt it was time to explain to my children that she had died, mainly so I can talk about how she lived.

It is up to me to enable my mom—witty, gregarious, cheeky, smart, fair—to be able to influence my children. I want them to know who she was, and I want them to feel connected with her and her family.

My son understands that my mother is dead. He doesn't really get that this is sad ("She's the one who went dead, right?"). But he knows she existed and that she came from Ireland, and he has now met most of her nine siblings and many of my 30+ cousins.

Last week, for the first time, I took him to her grave (my daughters had fallen asleep in the car and were there with my husband). I had no idea how to prepare him for this, so like with most things, I decided not to over-explain it. The concept of dying and being buried in a box in the ground could be frightening, understandably. But in leaving that part out, I hadn't considered that he expected to actually meet her.

It was quiet for a spell, and then he bent down, face a few inches from the ground, and spoke loudly and clearly to the grass: "Helloooo! I'm Liam!"

When we got there he said, "This place is really beautiful!" And it is. It's in a small village and faces a picturesque hill, covered in green grass and strewn with stonewalls. When I found the plot, which my mother shares with her parents and aunt, my son looked confused.

"Where are they?"

I explained that they're under the earth.

"Like potatoes?"

Sort of.

"So we can't see them?"

I'm afraid not.

"Can I touch them?"

Also no.

It was quiet for a spell, and then he bent down, face a few inches from the ground, and spoke loudly and clearly to the grass: "Helloooo! I'm Liam!"

And then he whispered to me: "Mommy, you have to say who you are, because they can't see you."

Although I miss my mom terribly, I'm not often visibly emotional, and I'm not usually weepy at the cemetery. But with my son it was different. I cried without his noticing. Because it was so frustrating to feel like they were so close to each other but so unbridgably far. I wanted them so much to meet in any other scenario but this one.

And at the same time, like my cousin's summary of events so many years before, it gave me a sort of sweet perspective and made me smile. Death doesn't always have to be sad or scary. Beyond death, there is still a desire for connectedness, a possibility for continuation in the lives of people who never got to know you personally. You're gone but you're not gone.

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We got up to leave, and he wanted me to read every name on every tombstone on the way out. I told him we needed to hurry, as we were going to meet my aunt at her house. "Is she dead, too?" he wanted to know, removing any doubt that his understanding of death and dying is a long way from realized, but it was a start—and I think a healthy one.

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