“The room was dark. I held my father’s hand as we walked in and I looked around. I was wearing a dress and special shoes. I felt fancy. My dad took me over to a casket. He lifted me up under the armpits. I looked at my great-grandmother and turned to my mum. My mum said I said something like “She looks like she’s sleeping.” My mum said, “She’s not, sweety. She’s dead.”
(My mum had read something in Ann Landers about not telling children that dead people had “gone to sleep” because that can give kids a weird fear of bedtime. Thanks, mum.)
I nodded and squirmed to be put down. I straightened my dress and turned around. My great-aunt, who was my grandmother’s sister and I adored her, was sitting in a chair staring blankly ahead, just shaking. My grandmother was sitting beside her, sobbing uncontrollably and inconsolably. My grandpa was in another part of the room with the husbands and brothers. The men stood around speaking quietly while the women mourned out loud.
I don’t know that I understood what “dead” was, but clearly it wasn’t good. I’d never seen my grandmother cry before except laughing. My aunt and my grandma, they were different. I didn’t quite grasp that grandma had lost her mum. The outpouring of grief from these two pillars of my childhood was more upsetting than being told that my great-grandma in the casket was dead. Seeing them so upset and being powerless to do anything about it was worse.
When I went back to school I told my teacher and classmates I had been to a funeral. I had actually been to a very short period of the visitation. I told my friends what I had seen. I was a minor celebrity for the rest of the day.”