Last week, my mother-in-law died suddenly of a heart attack in her sleep on Mother's Day. There are no words for the grief and shock and pain this sent through our family as we rushed to pack all of our things and start the 10-hour drive back to my husband's hometown to be with his family and friends.
As we loaded our 6-year-old daughter and nearly 5-year-old son into the car, we had many questions about what they understood and didn't understand. Our daughter immediately cried and seemed to understand while our son reacted with more shock and some silly behavior. He didn't seem to get it.
When we arrived late the first night, the children were asleep, and as the family gathered to quietly talk, cry, and pray, we left them out of it.
Our collective sorrow was so strong and the emotions so raw I was afraid we might scare the children. When they did see it the next day, they seemed confused: "Why is everyone so sad?" We explained it. Again and again. Multiple times over the course of the week. But they didn't get it. Until they came to the funeral.
At first we assumed that of course our children would come to the funeral, but then we second-guessed it. Were they too young? Would my son make embarrassing, loud remarks while people grieved?
He had been acting out by announcing her death to strangers and saying inappropriate things about death to anyone who would listen. Still, all the research says we needed to include them, that they would regret being left out and perhaps even be angry in later years.
So we allowed them to come to the end of the viewing and see their grandmother one last time before they closed the casket. As we stood over her, I could tell my son was afraid, his eyes were wide and confused, but then he started to cry. He finally understood. Our daughter did the same. We all wept together.
About a half hour later, we had a neighbor bring them back to the house while we stood in the receiving line. The next day, they came along to the funeral where they sat quietly, holding hands with their grandfather and curling into us. They didn't understand the service or the scope of their loss, but they understood that others were sad and that they had, indeed, lost someone who they could never get back.
As I looked at their beautiful faces, dressed in navy and dress clothing, my heart broke a little. My grandmother was one of the closest relationships in my life at their age. Her visits filled me with excitement and her love for me always made me feel so special.
I know what they have lost. It's every bit as enormous as what the rest of us have lost. Nothing can replace a grandmother taken too soon and suddenly. They needed to be there, to honor her with their family and to be part of the service. She loved them deeply.
As they left, they started to get silly and hungry. They started to act like children again. The grief has come and gone in the days that followed, but not for one second have we regretted allowing them to be there. We had a backup plan -- a neighbor would have taken them outside had it come to that -- but we never needed it.
Their presence brought enormous comfort. They are a living, breathing reminder that her life isn't completely over. She lives in them. They are a reminder of the future and the parts of her that will continue to grow and thrive. They belonged there.
It's hard to believe I ever questioned their presence. When people ask if children belong at funerals, it isn't a simple answer. It does depend on their age and level of comprehension, but I have no regrets about bringing them. It was the right thing in every way. It helped them grieve and really say goodbye.
Our hearts are breaking, but they are breaking together.
Do you take kids to funerals?