Death of a Child
I write this as I’m listening to a mother frantically scream, “That’s my baby!!!” as she views the body of her deceased 24 year old son for the first time since his death. She’s kicking
I write this as my own therapy … it’s hard to listen to. It must be harder to be her. I can’t imagine.
A Jewish couple who met in school, they were unable to have any kids of their own so they adopted what became their only son, now snatched away from an overdose.
My dad comes over to me. We stare at each other for about 30 seconds in silence before he says, “Any mother would do that…” It’s hard to listen to. There’s nothing to say at these times, yet everything wants to be said.
*As with all my posts, circumstances, dates and details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.
I remember the first time I used the brown, one foot wide by two feet long, wood, velvet lined box.
No need for the pomp of a hearse. I used my own car to drive to the hospital.
It looks like an inconspicuous tool box, with dings and dents and stains.
No one knows what I’m doing when I carry the box into the hospital. Nobody is supposed to know.
Nobody wants to know.
On my way back from the hospital I thought about that little brown box.
I thought about how it contained all the greatest hopes and fears of humanity.
I thought how it contained the heights of humanity’s passions,
the height of our joys,
the hope of our future,
and the very miracle of God.
At the same time, this brown box contained the impetus to the deepest questions our soul can ask,
the hardest tears we can cry and the profoundest pain we can feel.
All in this little box.
Usually, when we go to the hospital to pick up a body we bring a stretcher to carry the dead weight of a deceased adult, but on these occasions we bring the brown box to pick up the dead infants.
There’s a concept called “disenfranchised grief.” The idea is that there’s certain types of grief relationships that society either downplays as less important or outright ignores. For example, the grief over a pet’s death; the death of an ex-spouse; and — a big one — miscarriages and stillbirths. But perhaps the biggest segment of disenfranchised grievers are children.
Children are disenfranchised for two reasons: their parents haven’t confronted death on a personal level and have become so frightened of it that their natural reaction is to shield their children from the perceived “monster of death.” And two, parents simply repeat the evasive cliches and religious euphemisms they’ve been taught, leaving kids to believe that the deceased is just “sleeping” or “gone to be with the angels.” Cliches act as an unintentional defense mechanism that often keep the children from full death confrontation and thus grief.
I believe that allowing children to be a part of the death conversation and allowing them to be a part of the funeral gives them permission to be a part of the community of grief.
Many of the following suggestions depend on the age, maturity and level of comfort the child has with death. Certainly you never want to force a child to confront death. But if they want a role in the funeral process, here’s ten ideas (many of which were sourced and screen captured from the Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook community):
Involvement doesn’t necessarily mean DOING something. Involvement can simply mean BEING present in the context of community. When it comes to death, perhaps the greatest form of involvement is presence. And perhaps the easiest way to determine if your child should or shouldn’t be present is to simply ask them.
As a funeral director, I’ve seen children of all stages at the deathbed of the deceased, many have been brought while their parents made the funeral arrangements, they’ve been present for private viewings, present for public viewings and present for the funeral. It’s okay (maybe even healthy) to involve your children in as much of the funeral process as you want them to see.
2. Burial Involvement.
Have them great the family and friends that are coming to the funeral. Usually there’s a stand with a registrar book and memorial cards. I’ve seen young children take charge of getting people to sign in and handing out the memorial cards. It’s a very positive and fulfilling role for the children.
5. Sing Some Songs.
6. Hand Out Flowers at the Graveside.
Sometimes flowers will be handed out at the graveside as a “final token of remembrance.” It’s a beautiful thing when children hand out the flowers.
7. Junior Pallbearers.
Full disclosure: This is a book review of The Day the Angels Fell. The author, Shawn Smucker, is my good friend. We’ve shared a number of early morning breakfasts and a couple kayaking trips. Shawn is a better person than I am. He’s kinder and more courageous than I’ll ever be. But that’s not entirely why I’m reviewing (and yes, promoting) Shawn’s book. I read Shawn’s book and I’m promoting it because I’m genuinely interested in its subject matter and I value its death message.
The Day the Angels Fell is a novel that explores an alternative narrative about death … a narrative that we rarely think about in America.
The common narrative that we’ve been told is that death is THE enemy. That death is so horrible we should do everything we can to shield ourselves (and especially our children) from its specter. That our mortality should be hidden away so that the rest of us don’t have to think about it.
The Day the Angels Fell explores the idea that death can be a gift. And not only does it explore that alternative narrative, but it does so with the intended audience being children (middle school on up to adult).
On some levels, The Day the Angels Fell compares with C.S. Lewis’ popular The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book – more so than the other Narnia tales – provides a way to help children understand and tackle big ideas like betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness. The Day the Angels Fell tackles the big idea of death through a fantasy narrative that’s intended for children, but – like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – still resonates with adults.
The story revolves around twelve year old Sam and his friend Abra. After Sam loses his mother, he and Abra set out on a quest to bring her back. As he pursues a source of resurrection for his mother, he has to ponder the moral question: “If I find a way to bring her back, should I do it?”
It’s hard to talk to our children about death (hell, it’s hard to talk to adults about death). It’s even harder to do so without using flowery euphemisms and warm fuzzy answers. Perhaps the best way to do it is through a really good story. Shawn’s a storyteller (he’s written well over five books), and in this story, he finds a way to tell an alternative narrative about death for children and adults that isn’t wrapped in overused clichés.
Right now Shawn dropped the Kindle edition price to $3.99 just for our Confessions of a Funeral Director community. It’s well worth the price of the purchase and the time to read it. You can find the paperback version HERE.
A couple miles from my home on Tuesday, November 4, 2014, three-year-old Scotty McMillan was found unresponsive in his home, the victim of abuse and torture from the hands of his mother and his mother’s boyfriend.
Local District Attorney Tom Hogan said, “Little Scotty McMillan is dead. Over a three day period … he was systematically tortured and beaten to death. He was punched in the face and in the stomach. He was scourged with a homemade whip. He was lashed with a metal rod. He was tied to a chair and beaten. He was tied upside down by his feet and beaten. His head was smashed through a wall.”
Via ABC 6,
Hogan said professionals with deep experience in these types of cases were brought to tears.
“Our ER nurses see a lot of terrible things. But when they saw his body, they wept,” Hogan said.
The district attorney says Gary Fellanbaum and Tait (the boyfriend and mother) went car shopping, bought pizza, took a nap and engaged in sexual activity – all while the child lay dying after weeks of relentless torture.”
Scotty’s death has shocked our quiet little countryside. As the father of two-year-old Jeremiah, I haven’t been able to read our daily newspaper’s more detailed descriptions of Scotty’s abuse. The idea of two full-grown adults abusing the small, defenseless body of a three year old …. My Jeremiah is so full of innocence, so full of wonder, trust and love, such actions committed against someone his age (or any age) have literally made my stomach turn in disgust. Over the last couple days, as we’ve attempted to process this story with family and friends, my emotions have gone from extreme anger towards Scotty’s “parents” to extreme sadness as I’ve imagined the pain Scotty must have felt in his final days.
As a way to protect myself, I’ve tried my best to ignore this story. I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to imagine it. I don’t want to believe a mother could commit such actions. But I can’t ignore it.
Instead of directing my emotions in anger and hatred, I’ve decided my wife and I will make promises to our Jeremiah as a way of honoring Scotty’s short and brutal life. This is the only positive way I can cope. This is the best I can do.
To Jeremiah: In Memory and Honor of Scotty McMillan
You will never fear our hand or our touch.
You will never cower in fear of our anger.
You will never see us as monsters.
We will protect you from the monsters.
We promise to be your light, not your darkness.
We promise to use our strength in gentleness.
We promise our bodies will never harm yours.
We promise to teach you to love others, by loving you.
We, your mom and dad, will hold each other accountable.
And if we find ourselves straying as parents,
We won’t be proud. We won’t be arrogant.
We will seek outside help, because you — our child — deserve our best.
Peace will be found in our embrace.
Freedom will be found in our love.
Security will be found in our home.
Confidence in our love will be found in your heart.
This home is a place of peace.
This home is a place of rest.
This home is a place of patience.
This home is a place of growth.
Dear one, the world is full of trouble and pain.
But trouble and pain will not be found in this home.
The world is full of violence and abuse.
But violence and abuse will NEVER be found in this home.