Heaven Can Wait

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 19, 2007

Even though we'd never met the old woman who died, we decide to go to the viewing. This is largely to support the family, our friends Benny and Janice, and because of a when-in-doubt-just-do-it theory I have come to adopt around all things relating to sorrow.

You can't imagine how you might be helping by showing up at a time when a friend is grieving. The worst that can happen is you're no help at all, that you're merely wallpaper, which is hardly a tragedy. So, you just show up.

I'm trying to explain this to my children, who have the look children give when you tell them that no, we are not going to see the latest Pixar movie as planned; we are going to a funeral home.

Anna, 8, who has been to a few of these before, asks bluntly, "Will the dead body be there?"

I tell her, yes, but I don't know if the casket will be open or not.

"Sasha has never seen a dead body," she correctly observes about her younger sister. "This will be her first dead body."

Well, there's that. When it comes to children and death, I go for the when-in-doubt-expose-them approach. Ease them however you can toward the finality of life, but ease 'em in early. This almost certainly has to do with my grandmother, the "healthy one," who was never supposed to up and die. My father cried at breakfast. His red eyes marked the end of everything safe. I was 9. I remember little about the viewing beyond the men in black, all speaking Lithuanian, and a dead body. I remember hiding in the bathroom sobbing and trying to stop, shooting baskets with rolled up paper towels, trying to get a grip. I had no right to cry. This was my father's tragedy, not mine. I had no right to be swirling head-first into a despair that stung from a place inside I'd never known about before.

Starter funerals prior to the big ones help. That's my theory. A friend's grandmother or a neighbor's great aunt. If a kid knows death as an everyday occurrence, a family member dying will at least have a context that is larger than the kid.

When we get to the viewing for the old woman they called Gramm, Janice and Benny greet us with smiles, and their daughter, Zoe, takes my girls off to meet her cousins and to color. They seem good. Everyone seems good. Everyone talks about celebrating Gramm's life, not grieving her death. She was beloved. She was Benny's rock. She was the first person Benny took Janice to meet when they became a couple. The viewing is packed with well-wishers coming and going, and my husband and I stay in one spot, try not to get in the way.

"Sasha is ready to see the dead body now," Anna announces. "I think we should all go up together." I know this trick. I know that Sasha is not ready, but Anna needs her.

We go up together. The casket is surrounded with gladioluses. I take a deep breath of the fragrance and kneel. It is easier for me now. I tell the girls to say a prayer.

"When will she go to Heaven?" Sasha asks.

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