My sons' grief at a friend's death has forced me to see I can't shelter them forever
One thing never ceases to strike fear into the heart of parents: the idea of our kids dying before us
I was at the grocery store the other night when my younger sons and I ran into my next-door neighbour toting his six-week-old son.
After cooing over Junior's beautiful blue eyes and his adorable expressions for a bit, one of my boys asked to touch the little one's cheek. My neighbor hesitated for a moment and then declined, saying the baby hadn't yet had his second round of vaccinations.
I was shocked for a moment, then smiled, reminding myself we were dealing with that most nervous of Nellies: the first-time parent.
Whether you have kids or not, you've likely heard the stereotype of the hyper-responsible first-time mom or dad jumping to boil the baby's pacifier the second it touches the floor or rushing to the ER for every uptick in temperature.
Undoubtedly, this initial hyper-vigilance serves a purpose: it's Mother Nature's way of ensuring the survival of the species. All parents go through it, and most get over it.
There's one thing, however, that never ceases to strike fear into the heart of parents: the idea of our kids dying before us.
A few weeks ago, my sons' classmate passed away at the age of 15.
He was a nice boy — quiet and respectful and kind. His death was unexpected, shocking and a heartbreaking introduction into the ways of grief not only for my two sons, but their school community as well.
At this point in their young lives, my sons haven't experienced the death of anyone close to them except for their grandparents. That was obviously upsetting for them, but their father and I were able to help them to rationalize it, because their grandparents were much older than them; they'd lived a good life and left a legacy for which their many friends and family would remember them fondly.
When their friend died, however, it was virtually impossible to come to terms with it.
Despite the best efforts of their teachers and school counsellors, my boys were at a loss. The idea that someone could be in your life one day and gone the next was incomprehensible to them.
I asked myself: knowing what I know about death (my father died suddenly when I was 24), how can I make the death of their friend make sense to them? I came to the conclusion that I can't.
There is no way to make sense of such a tragic circumstance, to find a silver lining
There is no way to make sense of such a tragic circumstance, to find a silver lining. All I can do is try to help them cope with what's happened.
To that end, I've done my best to read up on teenage grief, so I can be useful to my sons.
I've learned that, as with adults, teenage grief is as unique as each individual who experiences it. It can't be dictated or forced to fit someone else's conception of what's appropriate.
I've also realized that for teenagers, grieving is just one more complication in an already turbulent period of life. The death of a close friend can cause them to question their own, newly formed identities as young adults; to ask questions they might never have considered before about life and mortality.
What's been hardest for me in this process is watching my sons come to the realization that life, at its core, is uncertain. There are no guarantees of happy, long lives for the ones you love, even if you wish there were.
Up until now, their teenage brains (with their still-developing sense of consequences) have helped to make them feel invincible, or if not invincible, at least unconcerned with thoughts of dying — which seemed to me to be as it should be. Kids should be able to live their lives without constantly thinking about death and dying.
Now they know words like hearse and pallbearer and condolences
Now they know words like "hearse" and "pallbearer" and "condolences." They have witnessed the depths of a parent's grief as they listened to their friend's mother describe all the ways she will miss him.
They've also been surprised by kindness from unexpected quarters; friends they didn't know cared who gave them a hug or a tissue.
They have learned a lot of things over the past few weeks, as have I.
Mainly, I've learned that there was still a part of me that thought I could keep them safe from the harsh realities of life. I can't, and that hurts.
However, just as I taught all three of my sons to use a spoon, to tie their shoelaces and to say "please" and "thank you," I can teach them other things that are even more useful.
I can teach them to value each day they have on this earth, to be grateful that they knew their friend, and to be happy they were good friends to him during his short time here.
I'm pretty sure those are lessons worth learning.