On the Friday after Thanksgiving, my sisters and I packed up our children and headed over, along with my father, to the cemetery. Black Friday indeed.
In what is remarkably now our seventh thanksgiving without her, visiting my mother’s grave over the holiday weekend has become its own tradition in and of itself. We go, we say the Mourners Kaddish, we leave sea shells (instead of traditional stones which Jews leave) because my mother loved looking for seashells at the beach. When we are finished, we usually visit my aunt, my uncles, a great aunt and uncle, and some distant cousins, all laid to rest within reach of my mother’s stone. We almost always bring the kids.
In the beginning, during those first few years after she passed, things seemed to sting more than they do now. And the pain of loss and the sharpness of the wind and the way it hits you on top of that hill on cold November mornings would often leave us breathless. But time has a way of morphing grief. It doesn’t go away, it just changes.
My children, now 4 and 6, often skip happily around the stones. They frolic on that hill and their antics often mimic a Sound of Music parody more than a visit to a graveyard. They love playing with the seashells and placing them on her stone. Ruby loves running her fingers in the grooves of where my mother’s name is etched in rose colored stone. In the beginning, I used to scold them about all of this. Their behavior wasn’t appropriate or fitting for a cemetery. It was a time for reflection and respect. But what I was really saying is that I need you to be sad right now because that’s what I feel. Because loss and death equals sadness.
But the amazing thing about childhood is that it is the very antithesis of appropriate. Kids don’t pause to consider what’s right or fair or even what’s needed. They just breathe in each moment of life and live it to its fullest. They don’t drag around with them the heavy implications of death and loss. Even amidst a hillside of headstones that I view as markers of death, they always seem to remind me that they are also markers of life; of how these people lived and loved. They are reminders of who they were: wives, mothers, and daughters, grandmothers, who too once skipped with glee and joy across the stones on the hill.
One year the kids insisted on bringing balloons there. One year they painted the seashells and filled her headstone with beautifully decorated pieces of Crayola inspired art. This year, Ruby was singing. She ran around jumping and spinning until she wiped out in the snow. And the she laughed and laughed as she shook herself off.
And all of it was so wrong and yet so completely right. A part of me thought I should intervene and stop them. Stand up straight, cry, speak in hushed tones, and remember with a heavy heart. But that isn’t what that place is for them. It is where we go to think about grandma. And they remember the best parts of her life, her joy, her deep and abiding love for her grandchildren who inspired her to be silly and curious, to remember that none of it is ever really as complicated as grown-ups like to make it.
So I let my kids play in the cemetery. I was fully prepared to tell them it was wrong. Until I realized they were right. Even quite literally in the shadow of death, it is never really about that, but always about how we choose to live.
And so instead of sanctioning them, I stood back and admired rare gifts that only childhood bestows upon us: the space to live in relentless pursuit of gratitude and joy.