Monday, May 18, 2009

Socialization and Mourning

Last week we went to Minnesota to attend the funeral of one of N.’s cousins, a sweet 14-year-old boy who had leukemia from age 2-4, was in remission for a decade, but last August was diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors caused by the intensive radiation that had been used to treat the leukemia. His death, while not unexpected, was heartbreaking, and I don’t want to write about that here. I haven’t been to many funerals, and certainly not recently, and the experience prompted many thoughts about the inadequacy of mainstream American mourning practices, about ritual and institutions.

The unschooling connection for this post is socialization, that tiresome topic. My mother-in-law assumed that we would not bring N. to her grandson’s funeral and told us it would be inappropriate for him to be there. We felt quite the opposite. We wanted N. to be part of our family’s mourning, just as he is part of our happier gatherings. We didn’t see our nephew often, but he was the closest cousin in age to N. and they played together for a couple intensive days during our past two annual summer visits to Minnesota. We felt that N.’s presence honored our nephew’s unusual ability to connect to people; not every 12- or 13-year-old boy genuinely enjoys playing with a little kid in the sand for hours as our nephew did. Furthermore, children’s understanding of death is constantly developing, and I don’t believe it is productive for this important process to try to isolate them from it (as I write this, I recognize that choosing how much death a child should be exposed to is a first-world luxury, and of course I am not suggesting that children should be traumatized by frequent exposure to death).

We homeschool because we love to experience life together as a family, even life’s saddest moments. We talked a lot with N. beforehand about what to expect at the wake, the funeral, and the burial, we talked about our own feelings and fond memories of our nephew, and about what other people might feel or do at the funeral. Banal though the comparison is, the death of our beloved family cat Scaredy a year and a half ago gave N. a template for death and burial, and he made several references to this as he processed the events of last week.

N. vindicated our belief in the importance of including him with behavior that exceeded even the most conventional expectations. We told him that he would need to be quiet and respectful, and that we would talk with him and answer questions after each event. He was subdued when we viewed our nephew’s body at the wake, and then got to play outside with another older cousin while the adults talked. He was quiet and observant at the funeral mass, though this was the first church service he has ever attended. He was similarly attentive during the burial. Several of our relatives thanked him for being so well behaved, and while I normally don’t put a high value on so-called “good behavior” by children, preferring that children express their authentic feelings, I was gratified that we were able to experience these events with N. without disturbing others.

I enjoyed seeing N. interact with our extended family during the less emotionally freighted parts of the week, the living room chit-chat and catching up with people, some of whom we haven’t seen for years. Just as his behavior at the funeral events showed his ability to conform to social expectations, his conversations with all sorts of people exemplified what homeschoolers already know about the socialization question: because he does not spend his day in age-segregated environments, he is comfortable playing and talking with people of all ages, and he had a really fun time with his uncles, aunts, and cousins. In fact, I noticed that he was much less shy this year than last year when, for example, he refused to give his paternal grandmother the goodbye hug and kiss that she asked for. This year, he willingly engaged in this social ritual.

I watched with pride my son’s increasing comfort in the social world, his ability to create relationships with his family members with less and less help from me. At the same time, I clung tightly to his hand all week, deeply grateful for our bond as we mourned the untimely and unfair death of my sister-in-law’s son.


lori said...

My condolences .... Your nephew must have been a strong kid!

Beautiful post. In my experience, it's very common for people to shield their children from the official mourning rituals after someone has died. They decide that the kids can't "handle" it.

My parents kept me from attending my grandfather's wake and funeral, and it was the most frustrating thing in the world. I was 8 and I wanted to go because I didn't understand what happened to him (my parents hadn't even told me he was sick). Family was coming to town from all over the place, and I didn't get to see them. So I knew that when I became a parent, my kids would have a choice if/when someone close to us died. They need to be trusted to tell us what they feel ready for and what they don't.

Fanny Harville said...

I couldn't agree more about trusting kids and honoring their sense of what they are ready for. Thanks for your comment.