being a mom

I Buy Balloons to Teach My Son About Death

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At the age of eighteen, death forced me to make its acquaintance on a cold day in December. It proved to be a memorable and earthshaking meeting. It was then I watched the nurse remove her stethoscope from my mother’s chest where no beat was audible. Her words stabbed through the silent room as she looked at me.

“She’s gone.”

Those words changed me forever. They landed in a foreign and uncharted place in my heart I didn’t know existed before that fateful night. “Gone” was never an anticipated outcome. Though my mother had been sick for years, death was never an option. It wasn’t thought about and it certainly wasn’t discussed between the two of us. Until those words, death was merely a ghost story and no part of the life I was living or planning on living as far I was concerned.

Death had other plans, though, and those plans trumped mine. The next few years were a whirlwind of emotion as I traveled through my grief. My world quickly turned dark. The loneliness and devastation of losing a parent sent me in a tailspin. I questioned my identity, my faith, even my reason for living. Depression became my only companion as I slipped into an inescapable chasm.

Loved ones reassured me my mother was in a much better place, pain free and resting with God. Friends, in attempt to comfort me, recited the promise I would see her again someday more times than I can count. They all meant well, but their words only made me angry and bitter. I didn’t want to hear it. I was too focused on the darkness of the cloud of death hovering over me to see any silver lining it could have.

I looked at death through tear stained eyes for many years and held onto all the bad it had brought me. But when thoughts of suicide passed through my mind, I knew I had gone as far as I could while holding on. Slowly, I loosened my grip.

When I did, my perception of death changed. I learned to accept death as a part of life instead of the end of it. My initial anger and bitterness was replaced with peace and hopefulness. The sight of Mom’s Bible no longer initiated tears, but smiles. Rather than change the station at the first notes of a song she danced around the house to, I turned the radio up. I learned to appreciate her in death deeper than I ever could have in life. My gratitude led me to look for her in my joy rather than only in my sorrow. In turn, my mother has continued to walk with me daily.

My revelation led to preparation. It was then I started planning how I would teach my children about death. Before I first felt my child tumble in my tummy, I was turning over in my mind the right way to introduce him to death. I know from experience how critical a meeting it will be and I want it done under the right circumstances with me by side his side for guidance.

Mentally I made a list of things we could do to shine the right light on death. Immediately I envisioned a picnic lunch for the two of us on a blanket near Mom’s grave site. We could do it on the anniversary of her death. Only Mom passed away in winter with snow flying through the air, so a picnic was out. Of course, we could always decorate with flowers. But everyone does flowers and honestly, they’re a bit on the dull side. Out of the blue, I had a eureka moment.

Balloons! I knew instantly it was perfect. Balloons are a staple of childhood merriment, with their bright colors and ability to soar through sky like magic. Tantrums end abruptly at just the sight of the helium filled party favor. They can bring joy anytime, anywhere, even in a cemetery.

I take a balloon to the graveyard several times a year. I tie it to the saddle that me and dad place on the tombstone every year on Memorial Day. It doesn’t interfere with the keeping of the lawn and once the balloon deflates, the grounds crew simply throw it away. One flies on Mother’s Day, one on Mom’s birthday, and one on the day she died. I include her death anniversary because it has become a day not to mourn her passing, but to celebrate the life she lived and the lessons she taught me.

It is that celebration I want to share with my children. It is that celebration I want to lead to the death discussion, not the tears or loneliness or pain I know will follow when they meet death face to face. When that time comes, it will be too late to imprint upon them the beauty in death. Up close, it can’t be seen. It’s only at a distance, either before or after, it is visible. For my children I want the before so in their time of pain the memories we made together can give them hope.

In a couple of weeks, I will celebrate my mother’s life on the day she passed from here to eternity. My son is three now and I’m letting him pick out a balloon to add to mine this year. He has no idea the significance of what we’ll be doing. Right now, he’s just a child who loves balloons. He doesn’t know I am laying the groundwork for one of the most important discussions we’ll ever have, but I do. Sometime in the near future my preparation will come to fruition. His curiosity will bubble to the surface and simmer in his mind. Eventually, questions will overflow.

I’m counting on it.

(Image: iStock / mmpile)