26 February 2008

Thirteen Ways of Losing an Uncle

Updated to add: If you click through the link on IndyAnne's comment below, you can see some beautiful photos of Tante Mississippi and Uncle Quiet, and read some material from the memorial service. Thanks, Anne.

Me: Uncle Quiet is dying, Curious Girl. He is very sick, and his body can't get better anymore.
Curious Girl: That is so sad. I have to tell everyone!

a few minutes later
CG: That is so sad about Uncle Quiet. (She sits down next to me and sits quietly for a few seconds.) I am going to think about something else now. It's much more happier that way.

In the car, headed to Lisneydand, CG asks, "how do you spell Uncle Quiet?" We tell her, and she starts writing it down. "Do you know what this is? It's a list of people who are dead. Who else should I put on it?" I suggest my predecessor as department chair. "But he's been dead a long time. Uncle Quiet is still getting used to it."

CG: What is Uncle Quiet doing right now?
me: He's very sick, CG, and he's dying. Tante Misssissippi is taking good care of him, and his mother is there, and Grandaddy J and Grandma L and Curly Haired Cousin and lots of people.
CG: But what is he doing right now? Is he dying right now? Did he already die?
me: I don't know, sweetie. Tante Mississippi is taking good care of him, and he knows we all love him.
CG: But what if he doesn't die?
me: Then Tante Mississippi will keep taking good care of him.

After Uncle Quiet died

CG: Tell Tante Mississippi that we still love Uncle Quiet and it's going to be OK.


CG: I'm going to make something beautiful for where he died. I will draw a picture, a flower. I know! I'll make a garden. Maybe something out of clay.

We should get Tante Mississippi a present. Maybe a picture, maybe a picture frame like we got Mommy for her trip. I know! A picture of me! With the princesses! That would make her much more happier.

on a postcard from Lisneydand

Hi Tante Mississippi and Curly Haired Cousin,

We're sorry Uncle Quiet died.
I miss you.
We're at a friend's house.
We didn't see any airplanes at Lisneydand. (Curly Haired Cousin loves airplanes)
I love you, Curious Girl
driving from the airport, heading for Tante Mississippi's house
CG: When are we going to be there?
me: Not too long. We get off at the next exit, the same exit we use to get to our house. Tante Mississippi and Uncle Quiet's house is on the way home from the airport to our house.
CG: Not Uncle Quiet anymore.
me: That's right, but it's going to take some time to get used to that.
CG: Especially for Curly Haired Cousin

CG: Is Tante Mississippi still sad?
me: Yes, she's still sad.
CG: She might be a little sad forever.
me: she might, in a way, but she will also be happy again. We can all smile when we remember Uncle Quiet even though we miss him.
CG: but she might be a little sad forever. That's OK.

CG: Is Uncle Quiet in our family?
me: yes.
CG: Is Tante Mississippi in our family?
me: yes
CG: Is Uncle Quiet still an uncle?
me: yes, honey
CG: but a dead one now.
me: right.
CG: you can be an uncle and be dead?
me: like Cool Uncle.
CG: at least I got to meet him. Did I meet Cool Uncle?
me: no, honey, he died right when you were coming into our family.
CG: and Mormor (Politica's mother). I never got to meet her. That's not fair. But I met Uncle Quiet a lot of times.


I think Uncle Quiet has friends already underground. Is he underground already? I think he has friends there.


Can he still remember us?


I tell Curious Girl that we can remember Uncle Quiet, that we will write things down for Tante Mississippi and Curly Haired Cousin, that Uncle Quiet is part of us because we remember him and tell stories about him. I tell her that we loved him, he loved us, and we all knew we loved each other. I tell her that sometimes, people get so very sick, very, very sick, that their bodies can't get better even though they try and their doctors try. I let her talk, I listen, I take her to Tante Mississippi's often. I really don't know how she's going to make sense of all of it, but for now, this is the best I can come up with. I'm using the lessons from all our adoption talk: I don't keep secrets, I answer the questions she has, I encourage her to talk about it all. Anyone else have any good ideas about helping small children navigate a loss like this?


Dawn said...

Oh I think you're handling beautifully. I hope when my kids are confronted with death that I handle it so well. My condolences to you and Curious Girl and the whole family on your loss.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry. It sounds like you are doing a fabulous job of handling it with CG though.

Judy said...

I am so very sorry for your loss.

And I agree -- you're handling it with beauty and grace.

I don't know where you live -- but if you have the same seasons that I do, maybe in the springtime, you can broach the subject of planting something in memory of Quiet Uncle with Curious Girl. Only if it's something she would like to do.

Anonymous said...

sounds like you're doing an awesome job.

Arwen said...

I'm really sorry, and extend my love to your family.
You do sound like you're handling everything absolutely beautifully.

I think you're not supposed to compare death to sleep: that is the end of my knowledge about communicating about death with kids -- but I think that honesty, and really listening, and being open help all sorts of difficult discussions.

Wordgirl said...

I'm peeking my head out from my normal lurking state -- you write so eloquently -- I would second all of the things said above and add only that I lost my father young -- five -- and my mother always held the opinion that when I wanted to know more, I'd ask -- and eventually, I did. They say you explain in age appropriate terms --as you have, and then be prepared for when she returns with more questions.



Mamacita said...

Wow. What an amazing little thinker you have on your hands.

So sorry about Uncle Quiet.

susan said...

Thanks, you guys.

Arwen, it never crossed my mind to say anything about sleeping, but you're right, I have heard of people saying things like death is like sleeping (I guess to stress the supposedly peaceful part?). When CG had her surgeries we were very careful to say that anesthesia caused "anesthesia sleep, which is from medicine and not the same as regular sleep," since a lot of the operation/sleep remarks seemed destined to create anxiety about bedtime! Death=sleep could do that big time.

Of all this, I'm marveling most at her out-of-the-blue assertion that Uncle Quiet has friends underground now (what an image of death that one is), and the early emergence of denial: it's "much more happier" if you just think about something else. Which I can laugh at b/c these other remarks are proof that she is continuing to ponder it all.

Phantom Scribbler said...

CG has a fine head on her shoulders. And very thoughtful parents. You are doing an amazing job of walking with her through this.

IndyAnne said...

I'm going to link to your blog from mine because lots of Tante Mississippi's, Curly Haired Cousin's, and Uncle Quiet's friends also look there for such beauty and comfort. Thank you so much for sharing your conversation. We have Chiclette who knows adoption talk, too. We will share.

Magpie said...

I think you're doing a beautiful job. CG too, for that matter.

kathy a. said...

you are handling this perfectly. CG is a smart cookie; she will have more questions over time. i love that she thought of making a garden, and that she is thinking of how the people closest to uncle quiet are feeling.

my kids lost their beloved caretaker suddenly when they were 3.5 and almost 5. the advice we and the other daycare families got was to be honest, but age-appropriate [don't offer too much info, but answer questions]; to let the kids know it is OK to be sad, and that we were sad, too; to be aware that young kids won't understand the permanence of death; to be aware they might act out -- and that they might blame themselves [which turned out to be true]; to help them remember the things they loved about her.

one thing we did as a group was have a picnic, and plant flowers "to remember auntie" in pots and planter-boxes. that was something even the littlest kids could help with.

one book that i remember was "the tenth good thing about barney," by judith viorst. it is a children's book about losing a pet, but at least at the time, there was not a lot we could find to help kids through a death. CG might like this book, though. if i recall, the tenth thing was that he was returning to the earth, and would help the plants grow.

What Now? said...

Beautiful post, Susan. I love that CG already knows that it's okay to be a little sad forever and that this doesn't interfere with also being happy.

Kris said...

What beautiful conversations. I'm always fascinated by how kids that age process death. And the way and an CG talk about it together is wonderful.

So sorry about Uncle Quiet.

landismom said...

I think you're doing a great job, as other posters have pointed out.

I'm sorry for your loss.

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

I suggest reassuring her, letting her know that while everyone dies, it is unlikely that you will die for a very, very long time. Dealth has a way of making kids wonder if their parents are next, and that both terrifies and saddens them.

Bardiac said...

My condolences.

I want to add that I agree with the other commentors that it sounds like you're doing a great job explaining and helping CG understand. But I'm also deeply impressed that she thinks about how other people might feel, and recognizes that sadness can go on a while.

Anonymous said...

You're doing such a lovely job with that sweet girl.

And I laughed out loud at this: "But he's been dead a long time. Uncle Quiet is still getting used to it."

She's got such empathy and you are so gentle and kind with her.

Liz (Mystery Mommy) posting anonymously from school.

Anonymous said...

I'm sad for Tante Mississippi too


elswhere said...


No advice, just virtual hugs.

JD said...

Oh, I am sorry for all of you. And both you, and CG, seem to be navigating the journey with grace and attention.