My Nana, my mother’s grandmother, died when I was five years old. I remember my mother telling me that she had died. I didn’t understand what that meant. She told me that when the people we love die, their spirits stay close to us to protect us. They become guardian angels. I am grateful to my parents for many things, but one of the things that I most appreciate is the way they treated death. It was never frightening or scary to me. It was just a milestone, like marriage or retirement. It was something everyone did.
I liked this idea of their spirits being close. I used to talk to Nana as if she was in the room with me. I said good night to her when I went to bed. I started first grade a few weeks after her wake. I was very cool with the idea of her still being around in spirit, so I would draw pictures of myself doing regular things, except Nana was also there in her coffin, just keeping an eye on things. It made me feel safe.
My first grade teacher was very creeped out about this. She called me up to her desk and judged me with her wide eyes and unnecessarily slow speech. I thought she was a fool. Obviously her mother had not told her about how their spirits stay close to watch over us.
My teacher told my principal, who called my mother in for a meeting. They told her that they were worried about me because I thought Nana was watching me all the time. My mother explained our family’s beliefs on that. The teacher and principal were very concerned that I didn’t understand the difference between life and death, even though I had seen my Nana in her coffin. They reiterated this concern repeatedly.
“Look, my daughter realizes that my grandmother is not rolling around behind her in her coffin,” my mother told them. She knew I understood what had happened. Now she was the one judging. I don’t know how the rest of the conversation went, but I’m sure it ended with my mother using some curt language and strategic eyebrow raising before leaving purposefully. I get my righteous indignation from her.
My great-uncle and grandfather died a few years later. I was fine with death by that point, but my sister was small and had been an infant when Nana died. My mother read a book to her about a leaf named Freddie who learns about death when the leaves fall off the trees. It was the first time a book made me cry. When the winter came, Freddie fell off his branch and onto the ground with all his friends. It seemed so peaceful. It seemed quiet and like a relief.
I told my sister about how the spirits stayed close. We lay in bed together and talked to them. We missed these people we loved but we didn’t think of death as something bad. It wasn’t punitive. It was just another part of life. You left here and you went somewhere else. And then your life continued, in this new place.
My great-aunt was a therapist. For my tenth birthday, she gave me a book called “Remember the Secret,” by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. It was about a girl who is friends with a boy who falls ill and dies. But when he dies, they go dancing in the stars together and the little boy is not sick anymore. It is not a sad book, not really. I was so happy for the boy that he wasn’t suffering anymore.
I have seen a lot of death in my life. I have literally watched someone take their last breath. I remember every person I have lost and I never fell out of the habit of talking to them. I know that they are all close to me.
I have knelt down and paid my final respects to people who died of old age after long happy lives, to those who died young of illness, to addicts who overdosed, to some who died by their own hand, to one whose heart suddenly stopped at the age of 13. Some of these losses are harder than others. Some of these losses are defining, in a before/after kind of way. We had one of those in my family this weekend. We lost someone young and my feelings are complicated and messy and it feels like my soul is an exposed nerve ending. It feels like we will feel this loss forever.
I don’t know where you go when you die, and I won’t until it is my turn. But I believe that we go somewhere, and that when you die, you are reunited with the people you love and you can all be together again forever.
Every time I kneel down in front of a casket, I say the same thing: I don’t know where you’re going, but wherever it is, I will see you there.
I’ll see you there.