I see dead people
Updated: Feb 15
Very rarely do I actually take a lunch break when I am working, even less often do I go inside somewhere and sit down. But on one random day recently, I went into a sandwich shop and while standing in line I noticed a group of kids come in, all probably around the age of 10-12. Seeing that I was in scrubs, one of them asked if I was a doctor; I told them I was a nurse. Another asked me if I worked in the hospital; I explained that I go to people’s homes usually, but that sometimes I visit patients in hospitals. One of the boys told me that his mom was a nurse, he said, “my mom helps make really sick people get better, is that what you do”?
It took me a moment to answer that question, because I was reminded about the impression people have when they hear you are a nurse; they usually think you help heal people. I said, “I am the kind of nurse that helps patient’s who can’t get better, who are going to die”. By this time, the other kids had gathered around me and were surprisingly very interested in the direction this conversation was going. One kid said to me, “do you see dead people”? There was a part of me that wanted to laugh a little as I thought about the movie reference, but I realized that his question was sincere and he deserved honesty. “Yes, I see dead people. I see a lot of dead people”. They all had questions, wanting to know how many dead people I’ve seen, surprised when I told them it was more than 100. One asked me if it scares me, another asked if it makes me sad. A few shared stories about their grandparents dying, and one shared that his little brother died when he was 5. There was such maturity in their questions and honest curiosity, and I realized just how little credit we give the youth relative to difficult and sensitive experiences we all have in life. Death is something that happens to everyone, age is not usually a determining factor.
I said goodbye to the kids and sat down at a table. I started thinking about a funeral I had recently attended. It was open casket, and I watched as each person took their time walking up to pay their respects. At one point there was a small child, maybe 5, who was very curious and made his way up to the casket. Just as he was about to peek in, his mother ran up to him, whisked him up and scolded him. She told him that was not a place for children. I listened in to a conversation that took place shortly after, it seemed there were a few people there who had an opinion or two about kids and funerals and a few others who didn’t agree with their thoughts. I didn’t get involved, but I did have an opinion. I watched that little boy walk up to the casket, I could see how curious he was, and I could also see that he was not afraid.
While I don’t necessarily think a five year old should be seeing a dead body as it lay in a casket, I do think that they should not be kept hidden away from death and loss. I found out later that the man in the casket was the boys uncle, someone he loved a lot and had a really wonderful relationship with. One day he was fishing at the lake with him, and the next he was in casket, never to be seen again. That little boy never got to say goodbye and probably was never told he wouldn’t see him again. I think we have to be careful when we explain death to children; be a little gentler with our words than we would be if telling an adult. But this was his loss too and he should have been, at the very least, given a chance to say goodbye.
As I was getting ready to leave the sandwich shop, one of the little girls came up to me. She told me that her mom was really ill and was probably going to die. She seemed so brave and strong and while I was fighting off tears, she was asking me what she could do for her. She said that everyone was always walking on eggshells around her, whispering and not telling her what was really going on, but she knew. I encouraged her to let her family know that she needs to know the truth. I also encouraged her to spend as much time with her mom as she could, to take pictures with her, laugh with her, and share all of her wishes and dreams. I encouraged her to make as many memories as she could, so that she can tuck them away safely in her heart to be brought out any time she needs them.
I am certainly not in any position to tell anyone else how to educate their kids about death but I have seen enough people lose someone they love, to know that when given the opportunity to say goodbye, it should be done. Life is fragile and precious and we don’t get to know how long we have to spend with those we love. The words we use need to be carefully said, with children especially, but I think if done appropriately, preparing them for loss or allowing them to say goodbye might just make their grief a little less painful.