November 2, 2014 3 Comments
Ricard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” were the last pieces written by Strauss before his death in 1948. He composed the music to accompany a soprano singing three poems by Herman Hesse and a fourth, entitled, “At sunset” by Joseph von Eichendorff. Hauntingly and achingly beautiful, they signal acceptance of the great mysteries of life and death.
Here are the words to the last poem.
We have gone through sorrow and joy
hand in hand;
Now we can rest from our wandering
above the quiet land.
Around us, the valleys bow;
the air is growing darker.
Just two skylarks soar upwards
dreamily into the fragrant air.
Come close to me, and let them flutter.
Soon it will be time for sleep.
Let us not lose our way
in this solitude.
O vast, tranquil peace,
so deep at sunset!
How weary we are of wandering—
Is this perhaps death?
Death givens poignancy and meaning to life and makes us cherish those even more who are left in its wake. It is also a reminder to cherish those whom we love. Remember, they may leave us at any point in time, and then all we will be left with are the memories of good times and those things perhaps left unsaid, but we regret not having said.
I am attaching a piece I wrote about 19 years ago (published in the Washington Post), when my daughter was young and asked me about death. Three years ago, I lost my dearest friend, David, and several months later, my father. I cannot believe two people who helped shape my character so much are now gone. Sometimes I forget it’s no longer possible to pick up the phone and call them.
When the Question’s Death
by Kurt Nemes
One day, about six years ago, as I drove home from the grocery store with my then 6 year-old daughter, Claire, she startled me with this question:
“Daddy, what are the ways people can die?”
I gulped. I felt my stomach tighten.
Other parents had told me how their kids had gone through a morbid stage. “They grow out of it,” they assured me. But would I? My daughter’s question brought my own unresolved feelings about death right to the surface.
Death. What could I tell her? No one ever talked to me about death when I was a child. When John Kennedy was assassinated, I saw my parent cry for the first time, and…I….was confused. When a cousin about my age died at the age of 8, I was scared. Now, a middle-aged man, I found myself hyperventilating at Claire’s question.
Americans do not like talking about death. It didn’t use to be that way. When infant mortality rates were higher and families stayed put, death was more a part of daily life. People often died in the home, and the whole family grieved together.
Nowadays, childhood death is much less common and grandparents end up dying away from family…in hospitals or nursing homes. This out-of-sight mentality, coupled with our national obsession with health and fitness, has made many Americans feel, as one wag put it, that death is optional.
So how do you explain to kids something scares you (no pun intended) to death? Writers on the subject suggest three basic principles to keep in mind: First, include children in the process; second, gear the message to the age level; and finally, remain honest.
From what I have read, the worst thing to do is to keep the child in the dark. If a relative is dying, often parents do not let the child visit the person for fear it might upset the child. However, that deprives the child from saying goodbye. If the child is then excluded from participating in the funeral…two things could happen. Either they are left to mourn alone, which is a terrible thing, or they risk drawing the conclusion that they were somehow responsible. So including them in the process helps them accept and resolve the complex emotions they will face.
Of course, with children, it is always important to tailor the message to their developmental age level. The key here seems to be to listen to the questions they ask and then give the answer in small chunks and check for understanding. There are many difficult concepts to deal with here-the finality of death, theories of the afterlife, the nature of the soul, the impermanence of the body. Even adults have trouble with these concepts.
Fortunately there are a lot of books on death for kids aimed at different age level. For example, I saw one for very young children that compared death to the cycle of the seasons. Another for adolescents, showed how historically the rites and practices around death evolved and how different cultures mark the passage from life.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t read these book when my daughter, Claire, asked me her question. But, I had taken a parenting course that stressed being honest with kids about your own experiences and emotions, and that has gotten me through many difficult discussion with her. I acknowledged my own fear around the top and suddenly had a blinding flash of inspiration in which I saw a clear choice: either help my daughter work through her feelings or repeat what had happened to me. Framing it that way made it easy to talk.
“That’s a good question, Claire,” I said. “What are some ways you think people can die?”
“Well, they could take the wrong medicine and die, couldn’t they?”
“How else could they die, Daddy?”
“Well, I guess they could fall off a building.”
“How could that happen?”
“Ummmm….they could be working on a building and the wind could blow them off.”
“Yeah. Or they could get in an accident.”
“Yes, that’s true.” I glanced in the rear view mirror. She was smiling. I stifled a smile of my own.
“Or,” she exclaimed, “they could be standing next to someone who was drilling. And the drill could slip and go into their hand. And the blood would splash on the other people and they’d all die.”
I broke out laughing so hard that I had to pull the car over to the side of the road and stop. Claire was laughing, too.
Our laughter was that of relief. She had obviously been thinking about death for some time, but didn’t know if she could talk to me about it. Seeing people die on TV and thinking about it must worried her just as it did me as a child. Talking about death made it less scary. And nothing bad had happened.
Being honest about my feelings, helping my daughter process her own feeling, and trying to stay on her level had worked.
What’s more, for the first time in my life, I started to think about death without feeling afraid.
And then I realized the truth of something the psychologist, Eda LeShan once wrote: A child “looks out toward life without prejudice or deceit or meanness, and all through a child’s growing years we are given the most precious gift of all-a chance to feel like a child again ourselves.”