CHILDREN AND DEATH
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After mentioning that funerals, in part, are a way a person can express appreciation for being part of the deceased's life, one student mentioned how he expected to go that day to the wake of a friend's father. Fully expecting it to be very sad, he was in no way looking forward to the occasion. The father was killed after crashing his motorcycle into a tree and stone wall. Next to the casket there was a huge floral display of part of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He thought it was it was interestingly funny. That allowed the conversation in the funeral home to proceed without the usual awkwardness and he felt very comfortable.
Another student had lost both parents to cancer within two years. As a child he went to both funerals. Normally kids don't fare too well at funerals because adults do not know what to say to them. When asked how he found the wakes to be he said a lot of his friends from school came which helped because he was surrounded with peers and not adults. He did say he did not want people talking about how he felt. He already felt bad enough. Another girl chimed in how she refused to go to the burial of her grandmother because she had enough of the morbid stuff. She just wanted to be with her friends. Both students didn't want people to dwell on the deaths but they didn't want them totally ignored it either.
Although children generally die much more easily than adults, it is one of the worst things that can happen in to a family. Children are suppose to outlive adults. That includes children dying at birth or in pre-birth. The acceptance stage of the death is very difficult to achieve. The anger stage is common.When a child dies families are in real danger of dissolution. Because the anger stage is so great, one parent commonly puts blame for the death on the other. One is basically saying to the other they are the primary cause of the death. That is a devastating procedure and can lead to an unforgiving belief. One student's grandmother had twins and one of them died. The grandmother hated the student's mother because she was considered responsible for the death of her twin sister. During her life she was treated miserably compared to other brothers and sisters. She was told on several occasions she caused the death of her sister. From that point on the death was ignored.
The psychiatrist, H. F. Schiff said, "When your parent dies you've lost your past. When your child dies you've lost your future." According to the National Observer, studies revealed that in more than one-half the families where a child dies more than one member of the family is under psychiatric care a year after the child's death, and 2 out of 3 couples wind up divorced after their child's death. And, where a child dies in the family the brothers and sisters suffer more than the parents. All of this lends credence to the devastating effect a child's death has on the other members of the family.
A teacher-friend had his child die several years ago. He volunteered to talk to the class to give them first-hand information on how parents react to this tragic event. Even though his daughter died 10 years ago, there were many episodes where Frank became choked-up and had difficulty talking to the class. Here is the interview with Frank.
Q. How long ago did your child die?
Frank: It's been about 10 years.
Q. Please give us the history of the death.
Frank: I have 3 children now. The girl, Tracy, was born and we were very happy. The baby looked perfect. Well, I take that back, for the baby did not have the proper opening and needed a colostomy which would be reversed later in life. After exploring this condition, the doctors found a major heart defect. The doctors knew if the child had one defect it possibly would have others. The chances were great there would be heart defects as well. One doctor was able to determine by listening there was a narrowing of the vessels to the lungs and there was a hole in the heart between the 2 chambers. We took the baby to Albany to have a series of tests. The doctor there said we must be able to accept the death of the child. We must also accept the idea the child is not normal. They recommended the colostomy, followed by preliminary surgery, and then followed by major heart surgery. The preliminary surgery would involve replacing the narrowed blood vessel. Another doctor indicated he could do all the operating at one time and that is what we decided to do in order to avoid an unnecessary amount of surgery. In this case they would not move any vessels, they would go in, open the narrowing, and sew up the hole. That would be it. It's really funny, I never thought that she would die. It never crossed my mind!
Q. How old was she when she died?
Frank: Eight months old.
Q. Would it be possible to describe the day of the death?
Frank: My wife stayed with her the whole time. The operation was scheduled for 8 A.M. The operation took 4 to 5 hours. At the end of the operation the doctor indicated there were problems and I went to the Recovery Room. I looked in an saw them doing CPR. I watched from outside the room. I was crushed. I don't remember crying. My wife cried. We packed her stuff up and left.
Q. Did you experience any symptoms of denial?
Frank: One of my worst fears was they would bring her back and she would have major brain damage. It happened to a baby in the same hospital the day before. Otherwise, I was completely unaware of what was happening.
Q. What about experiencing anger?
Frank: My wife was angry right after. I could not get near her. Nobody could get near her. She was swinging and....
Frank: It did change my life, my whole perspective and focus also changed. My focus changed in the sense those things that seemed so earth-ending and important became less so. My wife experienced more of these symptoms. I think the 9 months she carried the baby around really made one hell of a bond that I didn't have. I had to leave the hospital in Albany to see my boys but my wife would not go with me.
Q. Did you find people avoiding you because of Tracy's death?
Frank: If they did, and I know I've done that to people to, I wouldn't bring it up because I felt they would be uneasy with it.
Q. Do you still have despair?
Frank: I knew I would never get over it. I knew from having my father die it would get less. And I knew also there would be certain times it would be bad. I try not to say too much around my wife. It would bother me when I see kids her age start school. At first, when her birthday came up we would purposely go out of town. Now we just go to the cemetery here in New Paltz.
Q. What has been a major influence on the slow return to normal (acceptance)?
Frank: The other 3 kids because they forced me almost to get back to normal faster. The older boy was affected the most. The other two reacted in a way where they said, "Oh, well. You know I had a sister and now I don't have her anymore." Tony experienced the death the most. When this happened we were staying in a small house in Rosendale. Tracy slept in Tony's room. I took a week off from school. When I returned, the kids in school also helped me to feel better about the death. Unfortunately my wife was not able to get out and had to face the death all the time. We have pictures of Tracy and wished we had taken more. There are still some toys around that serve as memory items.
Q. Describe what it was like to tell Tony about the death.
Frank: I walked in the back door and he was in the kitchen. He looked up and he knew by the way I reacted what had happened.
Q. Are there any other things you would like to discuss?
Frank: I didn't talk to a lot of people about the death because I did not want to make them uncomfortable. One of my fellow teachers (and a relative) does not deal with death very well. I felt his sorrow although we didn't discuss it much.
Q. Does your wife know you are discussing the death today?
Frank: Yes, and when I told her she just got quiet about it. I purposely told her about it because I felt if for some reason she didn't want me to share she would have said so.
Q. Did religion play a part in you life because of Tracy's death.
Frank: I have a lot of faith although I don't go to church regularly. My faith didn't waiver. I didn't consider that I was being punished nor did I need more. Religion has become no more and no less part of my life.
At the end of the class Frank was surprised as to how much he remembered about the death after 10 years. Much had been suppressed. He wished he had told the class how Tracy's death helped his family to grow closer. The devastating affect the death had on the parents helped the kids in Frank's family to understand life better. Would he return next year? The answer seemed to be yes although he expressed the hope it would be easier.
One of our Guidance Counselors had a similar experience with his daughter. Although his daughter didn't die, Joseph's daughter had a long and close encounter with death. Here is the story he tells the class each year, although most was derived from the class in 1993:
"My daughter, Lisa, is now 20 years-old and is a Senior in college. When I think about what happened I get very emotional, not so much because of Lisa but because of other kids that are your age and younger. During the period of time we were at Sloan-Kettering I saw young people that had cancer. I've seen some survive and I've seen some die.
"When my daughter was in 6th grade she was athletic and very healthy. She never missed one day of school. During that time my wife and I noticed Lisa was not growing and frequently urinated. After consulting with several doctors, who found nothing wrong, it was suggested she needed an iron supplement. After 6 more months things were getting worse so we took her to Albany (NY) Medical Center. They spent 3 days of intensive testing. They could not find anything until they took her for a CAT scan. At that time they discovered a tumor on her pituitary gland.
"I recall walking into the hospital room with my twin sons and there was a whole team of doctors concerned with Lisa. They were crying. When I was told my Lisa had a brain tumor I just went blank. I could not accept it. I had no idea what it was but never thought of cancer. When told it could be cancer I said, 'No, there's no way this could be!' When they told me they had to operate, I said, 'No!' Finding out if there was no operation Lisa would eventually loose her eyesight and then would die, my wife and I decided on having the operation.
"After shaving her head and taking her to the operating room, the doctors decided to analyze the tumor by checking the spinal fluid instead of opening the skull. Through this method the cancer on the pituitary was diagnosed.
"We decided to take Lisa to Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York City. It is a huge hospital and everyone there has cancer. I asked one of her doctors when she could go back to school and he replied, 'I don't care about her going back to school, I want to save her life.' That hit me pretty hard.
"We got connected with the McDonald House. They take families of children that have cancer and house them during the long hospital visitations. That was a tremendous help to our family. If you get a chance to put some money into the jar in a McDonald's, please do so. I'll never forget this black boy at the House that was a real good friend of Lisa's. He use to play various games with her. Three or four years later he could no longer walk because they had to amputate his legs.
"To get a piece of the tumor for identification the surgeon decided to operate from the mouth, up through the sinuses, and then into the skull. He could not take the entire tumor out because of its location on the pituitary.
"The operation was successful and Lisa returned home and school. She had no hair and would either wear a wig or a baseball cap. The kids and teachers were wonderful.
"After determining the type of tumor we were summoned to the hospital for chemotherapy. She had to have chemo nonstop for five straight days. After the first half hour the little hair she had grown started to come out showing you how strong the chemo was. The chemo completely killed the cancer, but she had radiation treatments as a precaution. The chemo period was the most horrible time of her entire life. She suffered through a lot of pain.
"The entire thing was very expensive. Fortunately our insurance covered most of the hospital expenses. Our friends here put on many benefits for us. That really helped.
"It was interesting to see how other families accepted the child's illness or even the possibility of the child's death. In Lisa's (hospital) room there was a beautiful farm girl from Pennsylvania. Her parents did not want to be with her because they could not face the fact she was dying. Her grandmother was there instead. When I walked into the room my wife was crying. She explained that the grandmother had said this girl was going home tomorrow to die. She could not be cured. The dying girl wanted a popsicle. I went out and tried to find one for her in New York City. It was next to impossible. When I finally did locate some I bought the entire case and gave them to the girl.
"Lisa had to go for periodic checkups following the radiation. The interval for between the checkups would get longer each time. However, if they had discovered she had cancer again it would have been extremely tough. If it ever came back we would have dealt with it but it would have been tough on all of us. Thank God it never happened!
"I never discussed the possibility of Lisa's death with her. My wife did. In my own mind I never accepted that she would die. I don't think I ever discussed the possibility of her death with my wife. I did cry many times. I cried with my wife and with Lisa. I did pray like you can't imagine. I prayed more than I did in my entire life.
In France during World War II there were resistance fighters that were periodically captured by the Germans. Many were teenagers. Many were tried and convicted. They were jailed for a short period of time and then executed by a firing squad. Mr. Robert Smith, one of our school psychologists who is fluent in German, was able to translate one of the letters in a book titled, Last Letters of Those Executed 1939-1945 In Europe, by Thomas Mann. The letter was written by 16 year-old Henri Fertet who was a student in high school. He was arrested in his parents home in July 1943 for carrying out acts of sabotage and attacks against the Germans. He was imprisoned, tortured, and then tried and convicted by a German military court in September 1943. He was executed on September 26, 1943.
Many of the prisoners tried to get information out of the prison to their relatives and friends. Notes were secreted out. Henri Fertet wrote a note minutes before his execution and it reveals some of the behavior of a teenager facing his own death:
"My Dear Parents,
"This letter will give you great pain, but I have seen you so full of bravery, that I doubt you will be able to maintain that bravery now, even if it be only out of love for me.
"You cannot know how my spirits have suffered because of the fact I can no longer see you, and can no longer feel the tender concern you have bestowed on me. I am allowed to sense that only from afar.
"Give my thanks to all those people concerned about me, and especially, thanks to my family and friends. Tell them of my everlasting belief in France. Give a warm embrace to my grandparents, my uncle and aunts and cousins. Tell the minister I have been thinking especially of him. I thank the Monsignor for the great honor he bestowed upon me. I believe I have now shown myself worthy of it. As I fall, I salute all my comrades at the high school.
"I bequeath my little library to Pierre, my school books to Papa, and my collection to my dear mother.
"I die for my country. I wish for a free France, and a happy French people, not a proud France, first nation of the world, but rather an industrious France, diligent and honorable. One must try in life to strive for the good.
"Do not worry about me. I have kept my spirit and good humor to the end. I will be singing, 'Sambre-et-Meuse' just as you, dear Mother, taught it to me.
"With Pierre, please be strong and caring. Check his work and make him do his assignments. Don't let him get lazy. He should live up to my example.
"The soldiers are coming to get me and my writing is a little shaky, but that is because I only have a small pencil. I have no fear of death, and I have a very peaceful spirit.
"Papa, please, please understand: I am dying for all of us. What death could be more honorable? I am dying voluntarily for my country. The four of us will meet again in Heaven.
"Live well! Death calls me. I have refused to be blindfolded or tied to the execution post. I embrace you all. It is so hard to die. A thousand kisses.
"France lives! Vive la France!
"A 16 year-old sentenced to death,
"(Excuse the errors and handwriting - there is no time to read this over.)
"Writer: Henri Fertet in Heaven, with the Lord."
Another of our teachers, Steve, had an interesting childhood related to the constant fear of death. The following is Steve's account:
"I was born in 1962...in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, and spent my life in that neighborhood until I was in my early twenties. It was a reasonable tough neighborhood. It was in the process of change. The part that I was growing up in was basically Italian. When the Italians moved in 15 years before, the Irish and the Germans moved out. That's what happens to neighborhoods. My family didn't have enough money to move out. I was the only non-Italian in the neighborhood. It was in the process of changing from Italian to Black and Puerto Rican.
"In my family there were 4 boys and I was the oldest. My father was a truck driver. My father was also an alcoholic. I did not see too much of him because he was away most weekends and during the week he came home just to sleep. I never remember having a conversation with him. My father would tell me what to do or we would have an argument.
"At this time there was a great amount of tension and fear because you're always afraid you're going to get into a fight with somebody. There are a number of ways of dealing with the fear as I was growing up. One was to get involved with drugs. If you're involved with drugs you are stoned all the time and you don't care about anything. Some people dealt with their unhappiness, tension, or insecurity by being stoned most of the time. Other people got involved in getting tough by joining gangs. The only other way of dealing with it was to stay home.
"When I grew up there were three basic gangs in the neighborhood: The _______and Hilary Street Bops (the White gang), The Black Chaplins (the Black gang), and The El Quintos (the Puerto Rican gang). Because of the large amount of racism that existed then, we were constantly fighting with one another over area.
"My first experience was when I was 14 or 15. There had been several minor skirmishes between the separate gangs and there was an older guy named Charlie who was 17 or 18 who was involved with the Hilary Street Bops. He was sitting in a gas station one day and a couple of guys came by and just blew him away. There was an outcry over this to outlaw gang fighting. A lot went to the funeral. What surprised me at the time was after three or four days everybody pretty much forgot about Charlie. I thought Charlie would be remembered by everyone. We all found out a week later that Charlie was not even the right guy. They had come down to kill someone else and Charlie was just the wrong guy.
"When I got a little older I was afraid for my brother's life. My brother was in a gang war where they used car aerials like whips. The little ball at the end would take little chunks of skin out of your flesh when it was snapped. He was in the hospital for a couple of days.
"I want to explain what it was like to walk the streets in New York City. If I was walking by myself and saw another guy approximately my age across the street, if I made eye contact with that person it was meant as a confrontation. A couple of things might happen: If we both looked away everything would be all right. If someone felt a little edgy, somebody would say, "What the fuck are you looking at?" Then the person it was said to had two choices: "You mother-fucker!" or "Sorry." That is, when you walked in the street you tended to not look at people. If you ride in the subway today, look at the people. Nobody makes eye-contact with anybody else. If they do, they immediately look away. It's confrontational to look at someone. You have to protect yourself if someone is looking at you.
"The first incident where death came very close to me happened when I was going to a fraternity dance. The Catholic kids in public school had a dance once a week where you had to listen to the priest talk for 45 minutes and then you had the dance. It cost 25 cents to attend. Two of my friends and I were going to the dance and about 4 or 5 guys stopped us on the street corner and asked for money. We knew the guys and they were all junkies. I had 35 cents in my pocket but we said we didn't have any. An argument ensued for 10 or 15 seconds and a guy took out a zip gun. It is a home-made gun made out of a car aerial, piece of wood, and a door latch. It shoots 22's. It's not very accurate. He put the gun in my face and pushed the door latch. It didn't go off. I was very lucky.
"A little later on I made my own zip gun. I used it to exhort money from others. Eventually I threw it away. After that we started a social club. Those were very common when I was growing up. A bunch of guys would get together and go to a particular store. Everything was taken out of the store, the windows were painted black and a jukebox and a bar were installed. We had parties there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The cops never bothered you about having a liquor license because they knew where everybody was. I was 17 or 18 at this time. We used to have some pretty good parties. We had 7 or 8 clubs so a neighborhood kid could go from one club to another. This one particular night I got very drunk and two of my friends were walking me home because they didn't want anything to happen to me. On the way home I was staggering and there were a bunch of guys standing up on a stoop making fun of me. Being 'tough' and drunk I had to go back to them. Before we knew it, there was a big fight between these five or six guys and us three. They started to run and I stared chasing the guys. I got tired very quickly and started walking back to my friends, and a girl near my house started screaming. I looked down and saw I was covered with blood. I had been cut down the face and arm with a barber's razor. The cops came fairly quickly and took me right to the hospital. In the hospital I was semi-conscious. They worked on my arm, but the cut was so deep you could see the muscles when I moved my fingers. I still have very little grip in that hand. Following this, the neighborhood mobilized and they didn't even know who they were looking for. Everybody got in cars and went cruising around looking for the guys who did it. They brought me down to the police station to identify them. If I could identify them I probably wouldn't have. Besides, I was drunk and probably could not identify them anyway. The story around the neighborhood was that the guy who did the actual cutting left for Puerto Rico the next day.
"I had three brothers. Their choice of dealing with the tension in my family was to get involved in drugs. They all became heroin addicts. At this stage, I have one brother who has kicked the habit. I have another brother who is still on the methadone program. My third brother, who was the last from the youngest, committed suicide. He was addicted to drugs since the age of 16 or 17 and he had tried different ways of getting off the drugs. He stole from me, he stole from his mother, he stole from just about everybody. He was totally dependent upon drugs and didn't function. He decided the best thing to do would be to check out. He committed suicide by taking pills and drinking Vodka. My brother who lives in England tried to get him off drugs by getting him to come over there but that didn't work out. He called my mother saying he had to come back because he couldn't stand it there any more. My mother sent him money and he came back. He got right back into drugs.
"Something I want to make clear: All the time I was doing the things I was doing, I was frightened. And, probably the major reason I was doing these things was because I was frightened, and I didn't want anyone to know I was frightened. I exhibited all kinds of behavior that said, 'I'm not afraid of anything, I'm not afraid of anybody.' Inside I was trembling.
Q. Your mother must have been a saint. She had a husband that was an alcoholic, three sons that were drug addicts, and one of those committed suicide. What was she like?
Steve: When things went wrong we all tended to blame my father. However, she contributed to the whole problem of a dysfunctional family by allowing things to go on. My mother never questioned my father about his drinking. She made very good suppers for him. As kids we had nothing because most of his money went to drink. We were all playing a game pretending the family was functioning as a family. She made sure that game continued. She was often depressed and would not talk for days. As she became older she became worse. She was hospitalized several times for depression and had electroshock treatments. The last time she was hospitalized she was not strong enough to come home and died in a nursing home. She had happy moments but was not a happy woman.
Q. Did you take the role of the father?
Steve: Yes, when I look back on it I think that's what saved me from getting involved. I developed a sense of self because I was always helping my mother. When my brother committed suicide I had to comfort my mother. I told her he didn't leave a note even though he did. The note was one where he attacked my brother. I still have that note, at least I think I still have it although I haven't looked at it in years. That's all I have from him.
Q. Did you have to identify his body?
Steve: I had to identify the body. My brother and I went to the hospital. This hospital had a glass window that was covered with a curtain. My brother said, "I'll go." I said, "No, I'll go." So we both went. The thing that was incredible was even when you think you are ready for it, when I saw the body it was startling. Not many came to the funeral, just me, my mother, brother, a couple of aunts and uncles. There were no friends. This is going to sound strange, but I can't remember if my father was alive at this time or not. He died fairly close to the time of my brother's death. He had a brain tumor. He was a veteran and was in the VA hospital about one month before he died. I always thought his behavior was strange so it might be chalked up to the tumor. I went once to see him, as a son should see his father die in a hospital.
Q. Does your wife, Carole, know this story, and if she does, what was her reaction to it?
Steve: She does know most of it. There are two things: She's always surprised I function as well as I do, and if I do something that is a crazy she'll say, "You're a little crazy." So I can get away with some stuff.
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