Sunday, June 17, 2012

Monday Mournings: The Death of an Uncle

Hello. My real name is Anna, but I blog and write under the pen name Carrie-Anne, which I adopted for myself in May of 1993 after The Hollies' song. I'm 32 years old, though I still pass for someone in her twenties. No one ever guesses my age right. I've been writing since I was four years old and last year took my long-deferred dream of being a published writer off the back burner. I write 20th century historical fiction sagas and sometimes write soft sci-fi. I'm originally from the Pittsburgh area, but I've lived most of my life in Upstate NY. I also lived in the Berkshires for awhile, during which time I went to UMass Amherst for a degree in history and Russian and Eastern European studies. In the near future, I may finally be going to grad school for library science, though I still dream about getting a master's degree and doctorate in 20th century Russian history, my passion. Most of my hobbies and interests stem from my lifelong love of history, like silent film, antique cars, vinyl records, coins, stamps, old books, old cemeteries, and genealogy. Speaking of genealogy, one of my nine-greats-grandfathers came to Colonial America in the 1640s, supposedly to escape Oliver Cromwell, and I'm extremely proud to have such vintage American roots on that branch of my family tree.

DW: Who was the person that died?
CA:  My maternal uncle Paul. I always had so much fun with him, and loved going to his house. He had an awesome dollhouse I loved playing with, helped get me started in my lifelong hobby of numismatism (coin-collecting), loved giving me toy dinosaurs and telling me neat facts about dinosaurs (one of his interests), enjoyed playing board games with me (even if he sometimes cheated at Candy Land because he didn't want to be beaten by a kid!), and had a great sense of humor. We had the kind of close relationship where, had he lived long enough and had I chosen to go to college in Pittsburgh, he would've unquestioningly let me stay at his place. And I'm sure he would've been supportive of the decision I made about what religious path I wanted to follow when I was eighteen, even though it was a different faith than his. I firmly believe he was watching over me when I was run over by a car in 2003 and miraculously got away with relatively minimal injuries, a broken leg and some burns. To this day, I still have the posthumous last present he ever gave me, three $2 bills his widow sent me for my birthday at the end of that year with a note saying he would've wanted me to have them.

DW:  How old were you at the time?
CA:  Eight.

DW:  How old was your Uncle?
CA:  I think he was 33.

DW:  Was it a sudden death or did you know it was going to happen?
CA:  He and his wife were driving to work on St. Patrick's Day 1988, and the car skidded on black ice and went through a rotting wooden guard rail. It was completely unexpected for everyone. His wife was a nurse, so she immediately knew he was dead. One week later, the guard rails were replaced with proper modern metal ones.

DW:  Had you experienced any other deaths in your personal life before your Uncle died?
CA:  Because I was so young, I hadn't really personally experienced any deaths of friends or relatives. At most, I remember my great-grandpap Ben passed away a little before this, and that did upset me, since I'd really liked him. But since I was only seven years old when he died and we hadn't had an extremely close relationship, I wasn't hit that hard.

DW:  Were people supportive of your grief or did they shy away when you were grieving?
CA:  I didn't even know he'd passed away till my mother came home from the funeral in Pennsylvania with my little brother. Even today, I'm still upset I wasn't told right away and was denied that chance to say goodbye. Even more upsetting was when I learnt, years later, than my paternal grandma actually counseled my mother not to tell me right away. As a result, I felt like I never really got closure on his death and kept everything bottled up inside for years. It didn't help that I was also having some social, emotional, and behavioral problems at this point in my life, the reason for which was finally figured out three years ago. It's only really been in the last nine years, since my own car accident, that I've been able to open up and talk about my uncle, and his death, instead of avoiding the subject or closing down. The first time I was really able to bring myself to cry over his death was when I was in the hospital after the first of my surgeries in August 2003.

DW:  Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with this person?
CA:  I wish I hadn't refused to hug him one of the last times I saw him, and hadn't been such a stubborn kid or had those childhood issues that contributed to my being not so touchy-feely at that age. And I wish my family had spent more time living in Pittsburgh instead of relocating to Upstate NY, so I could've seen him on more than visits. But in spite of not wanting to hug him, I knew he wasn't upset with me. I've never forgotten how my mother told me, when she went to his house after the death, the last letter I ever wrote him was on the refrigerator, along with a picture. It had meant so much to my southpaw uncle that I'd written him a letter and drawn a picture with my left hand, and I'm sure that from the other world, he's very proud of me for having finally come out of the closet about the true extent of my left-handedness.

DW:  Was he buried or cremated?
CA:  He was buried in the Pittsburgh area.

DW:  Did you learn anything about the grieving process that you'd like to share?
CA:  It's not right to hide the news of a death from a child and not give her the chance to say goodbye. There are always age-appropriate ways to convey the news and help the child to start grieving in normal time. It's worse when you keep it a secret and think it's better to find out after the funeral.

DW:  Last but not least, were any songs played at the memorial that were important to your Uncle?
CA:  I didn't attend the funeral, as I've mentioned, though years later I saw a scrapbook in my uncle's memory in my grandparents' home. I believe "Amazing Grace" was one of the songs listed as being played at his memorial service. He was a person of deep religious faith, though it was certainly never something he was overt about.
This one goes out to Paul

Okay blog readers, what are your thoughts and opinions about discussing death with kids?  Should they be allowed to attend funerals?  Know of any good books for kids who are grieving? (I get asked this quite a lot)


  1. Thanks you, Anna, for telling us about your uncle. I am sad that you were not given the chance to say good bye and participate in that process. Clearly, you would have been able to do that.

    Of course, ever situation is different but I strongly believe that children have the right to know about death. In explaining the death of someone to a child, you have to consider the age and developmental stage of the child. You have to take death to where the child is - don't make it a mystery or a fantasy but don't give them so much information that they are overwhelmed. Be honest. That's critical and children know when you are not being honest. It is absolutely okay to say we don't really now what happens after death or, if your faith tradition gives you a firm explanation, they give them that explanation. I suspect that, no matter how old the child, he/she most needs reassurance that someone will always be there to take care of them. No matter who in the child's life dies, the child is going to bring that experience to their own life. Will I die? Will you, mama or daddy, die? What will happen to me? These questions are to be expected and answered with love and acceptance. Attending the funeral? Children can be included in memorial services. It's okay for them to witness grief. I know some people disagree but I think that, again, with honest love and support, a funeral can be important for a child. So much depends on the attitude of the adults around the child. That's my two bits worth.

    As far as books for kids, the one I used more than once with my K-2 class was Badger's Parting Gifts - a wonderful and honest take on death for kids.

    Thanks for posting, Pamela.

    1. I totally agree with what you said. And thank you for the recommendation of the book. I'll look for it at the library.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Anna. I can't even begin to imagine that experience. I was fortunate as a kid in that death was treated as a natural part of life and nothing was ever held back from us kids. I believe that has given all of us a very natural, non-mysterious outlook on death.

    1. I had a similar experience to Anna. I wasn't brought to the hospital to say goodbye to my grandmother. That was my first experience with death and it sort of colored how I viewed dying and grief and not in a good way.
      But, I probably would have never explored death had it not been for that, so I guess it all worked out in the end.

  3. Anna, thanks for sharing your story. I didn't get to this post yesterday because, ironically, my daughter lost control of her car and hit a guard rail. She is fine, but the car has major internal damage. So I can definitely relate to your post.

    I think children should be told about death and allowed to attend funerals. All three of mine have attended funerals and visited cemeteries. I try to help them not fear death but accept it as part of life (no pun intended).

    1. I'm glad that your daughter is okay. You must have been scared out of your mind getting that phone call. I can't imagine.

      As I think I said on this blog, I took my kids to their first funeral in March. They had questions, but I'm glad I was there to answer them and to remind them that funerals and death are a very normal part of life.

  4. I believe that if the deceased is close enough to the child, the child should know. Some kids won't completely understand death and that is understandable in itself, but isn't it the adult's responsibility to let the child know that he/she will never see this person again? That this person has gone to some other place? I know pets are a different issue for many people, but my sister-in-law's matron of honor told her son beautifully that their dog went to a happy place with other dogs where she won't be sick anymore. She didn't lie-the dog was very ill and unhappy here in our world and in their belief there is a heaven which is a happier place (her words were better). And don't all dogs go to heaven? The first funeral I attended was for my great uncle. I was old enough to understand that he was gone forever but I didn't cry until we all got back in the car after the funeral and burial because that was went it really hit me. All those people were gathered in his honor and I would never see him again. I wouldn't have had that sense of reality if my parents kept me at home. So, I guess how you tell your children is up to you but in my opinion it is important that you at least tell them. Showing them is a good way. And Pam, I've already discussed this with you, but there was a boy at the school I work at who was dealing with no only the death of his grandmother, but the possibility of death in his family because of a close one overseas in Afghanistan. This little boy is only in elementary school, but his parents obviously can't hide death from him.

    1. Hi Jill! Thanks for stopping in. It's sad that this child is having to deal with death at such a young age. Did you read the book recommendation from Gracie Wilde for kids? You should get it for the school.


Comments are welcome and appreciated!