His name was Donald and I first met him when he was 9 and I was 12. His was the first Black family to move into our Seattle neighborhood back in the late 1950s. I remember a man and his wife who had recently moved to our neighborhood from Mississippi—a nice couple—or so I thought until they put up a Confederate flag in their living room window a couple days after Donald and his parents moved in. I remember Donald as a gentle, sometimes sickly boy who worked hard at fitting in with the neighborhood children. After a year, he joined the local Cub Scout group where I assisted the Den Mother at the weekly meetings.
One summer day a few months after the Cub Scout meetings had begun, my family and I had just returned from a long drive to see our grandfather in Ohio when my mother shared some sad news that she had gotten from a neighbor: Donald had died. He had been sick and quickly succumbed to something called double pneumonia. Of course, we were all shocked. The next day, I was told there would be a funeral and that the Cub Scouts were invited. Only one of us had ever been to a funeral.
Two days later, six of us boys crammed into the back of a station wagon, and as kids often do, we nudged one another attempting to reduce our anxiety by joking and laughing. One kid yelled out, “Who’s going to sit next to Donald.” And we all responded, “Not me. You do it!” When we arrived at the church, we were met with loud organ music and adult voices chatting softly. The smell of flowers was overwhelming. One of the wreaths said, “Beloved Donald.”
We were escorted in and seated in the front row with Donald’s open casket not more than a few feet away! There he was, the lifeless body of a young boy in a small casket. Needless to say, the joking had ceased the moment we left the station wagon. The sermon was long, punctuated at times with sudden loud exclamations of wailing and crying—something that sent chills through six wide-eyed Cub Scouts. The service ended with Donald’s casket carried out of the building and into what I later realized was a hearse.
I don’t remember much else of the service, but I do know that this first encounter with death as a young person provided me with lifelong lessons:
- Kids can die—that means my other friends and me as well! Scary!
- Dead bodies don’t move. And, they look different from a sleep state.
- There are cultural differences in expressions of grief.
- Prior to attending a funeral, children need to be sat down and informed exactly what will happen—what they will see, hear, and smell. The explanation should be descriptive to the extent that that there will be no surprises.
- Following the funeral, there should be a debriefing so that each child can process what had transpired.
- Discussion could include any feelings of guilt (“I regret teasing him so much”) or anger (“I’m mad at his parents. Didn’t they know he was sick?”).
- In an ideal setting, it would have been helpful at the next Cub Scout meeting for each of us to write a note to Donald’s parents (I never spoke to them again—they moved a couple months later). Or perhaps the group could have made something to give to the family.
None of #4-7 took place for us bewildered kids. Of course, as they say, “That was then. This is now.” We now know much more about how to help a child cope with a death. My first experience, although sudden and personal, was not a traumatic event that has affected me long term. I wonder how many children have grown to adulthood and are walking around today having never had the chance to work through an earlier death.
Several years ago, I volunteered once a week at a prison teaching inmates a number of psychology-related topics. I remember the evening I lectured on Death and Loss when I asked, “What kinds of loss have you experienced?” Hands went up all over the room as they shared powerful stories of childhood trauma: “My father killed my mother. I was in my bed when it happened. I heard it.” “My sister died of a drug overdose.” “My little sister was run over by a car. I saw it.” “My mother died of cancer when I was 11. For years, I thought it was my fault.“
Looking back, I have never been in a room with so much loss. And I often wonder: Is it any coincidence that these guys ended up in prison?
I think of the millions of children throughout the world who will experience a significant, traumatic death this year. I hope that the adults around them will use the knowledge we now have to help a young person cope with death. Otherwise, we are still back in the 1950s.