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Gone but not forgotten: my way of explaining death to kids

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This week marks the one year anniversary of the death of my brother-in-law, Conor Lyons.  He died on July 13, 2010 at just 47 years old.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer last February and left us for heaven just five months later.  He suffered tremendously.  And in watching his pain and his struggle, we suffered too.  In fact, while his suffering is now over, ours continues.

He was a major presence in our lives.  For years, he lived right around the corner and walked our dog every morning.  EVERY morning.  He started this routine when our daughter Ciara was born in October 2006 and continued until he could walk no more last spring.  In addition to walking our dog, he was always around to take a tot to preschool or help feed the triplets. Conor's hands never held a baby of his own, but often held one of ours when help was needed most -- for that 11PM or 6AM bottle, when we were exhausted and in desperate need of extra hands. We never asked; he just appeared like an angel, which is the way so many people remember him. 



Conor was gentle, loving and kind.  He was a gifted musician and a patient, talented teacher.  He promised to teach our oldest son Liam, now six, to play the guitar.  A few months ago, Liam just started bawling out of the blue.  "What's the matter?" we asked. "Uncle Conor promised to teach me the guitar and now he can't," he sobbed. Such sadness. Such loss.  And so deeply understood by this little guy -- a child struggling to understand death and its permanence, much in the same way we struggle ourselves.

When Conor died, I decided I would find a book to explain it to the kids. To fix it.  To make us all feel better. I really thought that such a book existed -- a soothing tale to explain it all and take away our hurt and pain and sadness.  I searched high and low and settled on "The Dead Bird", by Margaret Wise Brown, figuring that the woman who gave us "Goodnight Moon" as our go-to manual for sweet dreams could certainly do the same for life and death... right?

WRONG!  This book, like most I read with child-like parables on life and death doesn't even come close to getting it right.  Maybe because there is no "right" when you lose someone so close to you at such a young age.  It's hard to find the "right" in a life cut short; and it's especially hard when the book you were counting on to explain it all ends by noting that the children "forgot" that dead bird and just moved on with their lives.  That wasn't the message I wanted to give to my kids. 

Death isn't permission to forget but rather, a demand to remember.  To remember the love, the laughter, the music, the holidays, the Sunday night suppers, the early morning coffee chats, the days at the boat club and the nights drinking wine in the yard.  For our kids, there are memories in the music, the pictures, and maybe even a dim recollection of being held by those strong, comforting arms.  That's the way to remember Conor, and I think that's the way he'd want to be remembered... as an all-around good guy who we were privileged to have known and hope to one day meet again.  We love you (Uncle) Conor and, unlike that bird, you will never, ever be forgotten.

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