Chacos column: Dealing with death
One reason I love having pets is for the lessons they selflessly provide. Their eventual demise always tugs the heart hard, though. My children were too young to say goodbye to Lulu, the twelve-year-old dumpster-diver who crossed the highway one fateful evening in search of trashy vittles. I didn’t tell the kids a car hit our beloved “first child” because she didn’t look both ways before crossing the street. Instead, my husband and I spoke in generic terms our toddlers could swallow. We knew they would undoubtedly feel the weight of sadness and loss our home would hold for many months. At the time, that was enough.
Over the years we’ve said goodbye to a gecko, 3 parakeets, a cat, and too many goldfish to count. Each had a funeral service befitting the occasion while taking into consideration the emotional bandwidth our little ones could tolerate. Therefore, some goodbyes were a few parting words with a flush and a swirl around the bowl. We learned floating fish required little fuss and an albino lizard was okay to put up for adoption. Five-year-olds can be overwhelmingly sad one moment and ask for a pet turtle the next.
On the other hand, birds needed more fanfare. For one feathered friend, we hosted a formal burial during a Super Bowl halftime show. We crammed in a eulogy, hummed taps, added some afterlife trinkets to the coffin, and staked a small headstone next to the garden. We were back inside serving nachos before the second half of the game commenced. At the time, I was confident we were doing enough.
Our sly cat took off one day and never looked back. We’ve had sightings of her taunting us with what appeared to be a snarky grin smeared on her face. But in the year and a half since she’s been declared “missing,” I’ve used the time to have more thoughtful conversations about the indelible mark loss leaves on your heart. Time eases their pain, but not their sorrow. Cats are brutal creatures, mercilessly careless with human emotions.
Then, when death wants to show its power, magnify its lessons, and wield its hurt, it comes again.
We had to say goodbye to my mother-in-law, the first close relative in our tight-knit family. This hit us hard. Not only did our children lose a grandmother they loved dearly; they witnessed the rest of the family painfully grieve the loss of a beloved. Through it all, I tried to balance the right levels of authenticity, honesty, and rawness as they’re now becoming young adults. As it does, death ratcheted it up a notch, and we walked through the stages with our children. At the time, I hoped we were enough.
In recent days, however, I’ve reluctantly transitioned conversation about life and death yet again. This time it was more abrupt than I ever imagined and much too soon for my taste. And since there’s no real delicate way to talk about what’s going on in the news today, I decided to be blunt.
My kids sat silent as I said that color, religion, and gender are the three major contributing factors that will either help or hinder your success in life. If you’re on the wrong side, you will spend your life proving you are as equal and worthy of justice as someone of the right color, the right religion, and the right gender. These things were put in place ages ago serving as society’s currency. Some lives are more easily taken away than others because human life comes at a cost, using this unspoken, tainted currency.
I took it one step further, too, because I was on a roll. I told my children that because we’re the “right” color, we have an obligation to use our platform to speak out against injustice. Supporting those without a voice is simply the right thing to do. Unfortunately, we are the “wrong” religion, so we must be vigilant, yet safe, when speaking out to those who make hateful remarks, say crude jokes, or fuel anti-Semitic rhetoric. And, since 2/3 of my children are of the “right” gender, I reiterated that we will need strong, confident males to truly help women’s advancement in the workplace. We can’t move the needle without men working on the inside.
When my children finally exhaled, I aimed for a moment of hope and levity. I said there are people in the world who are trying hard to change this narrative, by marching to show unity, running for office, trying to change the laws. Our quest will be to find them, as if we’re going on a challenging Geocaching mission. My metaphor fell flat, even the crickets were silent; and I know they understood.
Still, I went to bed asking myself if I said enough, if I model enough of the right behaviors, do we teach enough of the right things. I’m afraid to turn off the light, worried for the answers.
Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, Colorado balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor and some flair.
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