A Death in Our Family

Lou at his 90th birthday surprise party

Lou giving a speech at his 90th birthday surprise party

Today we buried our family patriarch.  Technically Lou was B’s first cousin twice removed.  But in all the ways that matter, he was a grandfather to both of us – a father in some ways – and the only great-grandfather our girls will ever know.

Lou is not the first close family member to die since our kids were born, but he is the first to die since our kids have been old enough to understand what’s going on – to the extent that a 3½ and 5½ year old can.  Even though he lived far away, our 5½ yo visited him many times, and both our kids spoke to him regularly on the phone and by Skype.  So, for the first time, our mourning isn’t singular – waves of our own emotions punctuated by the routine of parenting – but plural.  We have to manage our kids’ curiosity and emotions as well as our own grief and how our grief affects them.

This is new territory for us, and we’re feeling our way through it.  We didn’t bring the kids to the funeral, mostly because it was logistically impractical.  But we did share the sad news with them the day Lou died, and have been talking about it with them since.  How do you explain to a 3½ yo why she can’t call someone on the phone anymore?  We’ve been taking the advice of friends who attended a workshop on explaining death to children, and have been emphasizing that he was very, very, very, very, very old and very, very, very, very, very sick.  We hope this will reassure them that death is far away from them and others they know, not something that happens with normal “growing older” or regular “getting sick.”  We’ve talked a lot about how, although we can’t call or Skype with Lou anymore, we can talk to him in our brains and our hearts, and that his spark will always live on inside us.  That is, we can remember the things we loved about him – he was extraordinarily kind, loving, and thoughtful – and try to emulate them.  We’ve also talked a lot about how we feel very sad, that it’s okay to be sad, and how telling stories and watching videos of Lou helps us feel a little better (and sadder at the same time – see how this gets confusing quickly?).

So far the kids’ reactions have ranged from curiosity to disinterest.  Our 5½ yo has asked a few questions about why people die; our 3½ yo is mostly interested in showering us with hugs and kisses when she sees us crying (sweetest thing in the universe!).  But we know with young kids that reactions to big life changes like this may not manifest for weeks or months – or frankly, ever. One thing we’re convinced of, though, is that if we make it an open topic for as long as they’re interested, and explain as best we can our own feelings as they evolve, that will be healthiest for all of us.

In the meantime, we’re dealing with our own grief.  We realize how fortunate we are that it is not a grief born out of tragedy – Lou lived a full, long, meaningful life.  It is a grief born of pure sadness that this remarkably kind, genteel, generous man who loved us unconditionally is gone.  It’s the little things that make our breath hitch – like the thought of never again hearing him respond with utter delight to any and all good news, “Heeey, that’s great!!”

Lou lived a remarkable 94 years – more than 92 unhindered by health issues – and we are so lucky to have spent so much time with him throughout our adult years.  Lou never married or had kids of his own; he instead chose to spend his life caring for his mother and his two sisters (neither of whom married, either) until their deaths, and his many cousins, including us.  He was an extraordinary person.

It’s impossible to sum up Lou’s life, what he meant to us and to so many others, in a few paragraphs.   So we’ll pay tribute with just a few of our favorite memories.

Into his early 90s, Lou made regular pilgrimages to Club Med “to check out the swimsuit models”, went cross-country skiing, walked 3-5 miles a day, drove himself everywhere, traveled solo, and donated to over 300 charities a year.  Presentation was of the utmost importance to Lou – having spent years in the military, looking sharp was a cornerstone of his personality.  Boy was he a dapper dresser!  On our best days we don’t look as put together as he did on his worst.  Lou lived in his own home until the day he died, but he was never alone.  Until the very end, he never left the grocery store without a box of cookies for his condo building staff and he never left his favorite Italian restaurant – where he was referred to as Luigi, a nickname we adopted and evolved into “Luigi the Squeegee” – without an extra couple pizzas for the condo doormen.

Lou regularly made pilgrimages to the Military Academy at West Point, where he bought literally hundreds of hats, tee shirts, and sweatshirts over the years, all emblazoned with the West Point logo.  Anyone who knew Lou was gifted some type of West Point paraphernalia; D’s drawers are overflowing with West Point shirts and hats.  Many, many times while wearing those clothes D has been asked whether he went to West Point; every time he gets the question, we feel Lou’s presence.

In his late 70s, Lou spent many a weekend field-side cheering on B’s college ultimate Frisbee team.  After stalwartly braving muddy fields and a torrential downpour for hours one particularly cold weekend, Lou ducked out for coffee and returned with enough towels and hot chocolate to warm up her entire team.  One summer Lou and B visited Arlington National Cemetery together; walking through the cemetery was too dull for him, so they ran.  B – a college athlete – could barely keep up.  At 82, Lou stood by D’s side at our wedding.  It still makes us grin to recall how emotional and delighted he was when D – whom Lou often referred to as “Dan’l Boychick” – asked Lou to be his groomsman.

Throughout his 80s, Lou was a constant presence in our daily lives.  When we moved to NYC upon getting married, Lou drove B to Ikea to pick up a futon – the first piece of furniture we bought together.  For months Lou stabled our car at his house in New Jersey; when we picked it up to drive cross-country on a 3-week camping trip, the car was tuned up, spiffed up, and ready for the road.  D got a lecture about car care that day, and Lou sent us off with a package of car supplies, as well as extra food and towels for the road.  For years, other packages would arrive at our door without notice – usually nice clothes or jewelry accompanied by a short note reading “I was out shopping. Saw this on sale and thought you might be able to use it.”  D estimates 60% of his wardrobe is built from gifts from Lou.

While we lived in California, Lou visited us annually, happily sleeping on the futon he’d helped us buy years earlier.  He was there the first time our now-5½ yo rolled over as an infant – a simple rite of passage he marveled at experiencing and commented on for years afterwards.  Lou was there every time we picked up the phone and needed a hug.  Often he’d answer (knowing it was us), “Hello, is this the person to whom I’m speaking?”

The last six months were hard for Lou and all who loved him – he declined very rapidly, going from fully independent to virtually house-bound.  Blessedly when he did go, he went quickly.  We like to think that he saw what lay ahead, counted his blessings, and checked out on his own terms.  Much like he lived his life.

Louie, Louis the Seagull, Chief Loose Eagle, Luigi Segale, Luigi the Squeegee, Cousin Lou our love – we’re so glad you’re not suffering anymore.  We like to imagine you now reveling in a long-awaited reunion with your sisters, your parents, your beloved first cousins Lou and Nate, the sweetheart you lost so young, and the countless others who preceded you in death who loved you and whom you loved on this earth.  We are certain there’s lots of “kissing and hugging” going on, as you were fond of saying.  Thank you for always being there for us.  Thank you for leaving an indelible mark on us.  Thank you for gently teaching us how to be dapper in presentation, unconditionally supportive, and affectionate with those we love.  We miss you and will always always love you.

Got any advice for us on how to get through this difficult time?  How have you juggled your own grief with that of your kids?  How have you helped little kids understand the death of a loved one?

 

photo credit:  Hugh Miller (c) 2010

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3 thoughts on “A Death in Our Family

  1. Pingback: The Day Our Dog Got Old | Finding Our Best Selves

  2. Dear D & B – I am very sorry to hear about Cousin Lou and am sorry for your loss. I only had the honor of meeting/knowing him during your wedding weekend but have heard Cousin Lou stories many times over the years. My thoughts and prayers are with your whole family as you remember him but also miss him.

    I like how you are involving your kids in the grieving process. Sounds like you are supporting/encouraging sadness, acceptance, and memories with the little ones, while also staying literal. I’ve read it can be very confusing – and scary – to a child if they become confused by using terms like “sleeping” or “resting.”

    I especially liked how you used the term “spark” and how we can keep speaking to loved ones in our brains and in our hearts.

    May Cousin Lou’s spark always burn bright for you two, whether it’s putting on a sweatshirt or taking a nap on the futon (if indeed you still have it) or buying a random pizza for someone (helping to give to someone who always gives to you).

    With much love,

    R

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