Thirty Days of Caemon–Day Five: Caemon’s Story–Explaining the Impossible

When Caemon died, he had a number of peers who knew him, who knew he was sick and in the hospital, and the parents of these children–his cousins, his friends, even children he didn’t know–had to figure out how to tell their children about death in ways that they would understand but also in ways that wouldn’t scare them. I felt for these parents, but I was also curious about how they would do it, how they would help children Caemon’s age understand something he didn’t understand himself. Where had Caemon gone? Why wasn’t he with his moms? Could this happen to them? Honestly, these were questions we all had.

Parents in our lives shared with us the many strategies they tried to use to help their children understand Caemon’s untimely death. Two different friends told their children that they could choose a star for Caemon, and that every time they saw that star, they would be able to say hello to him. Months later, these girls still pointed out their Caemon stars. Some obviously used their spiritual beliefs to explain where Caemon had gone; others tried to help their children understand the cycle of life, that we all have lifetimes with beginnings and ends, some much shorter than others; others waited, not knowing if the time was right at all to share this loss with their children. No one was wrong. Every parent did what they needed to do to help their children navigate waters they never imagined.

We knew at Caemon’s memorial service that many of his peers would be present. In fact, we invited their parents to bring them; after all, they needed to say goodbye as much as we did. However, we also wanted to let them have a time for their own understanding of Caemon’s death–and then a time to leave and play as well. To help make this something they would understand, we entrusted a dear friend with writing a story for Caemon, and we asked her to tell the story at his service. As you will see, we asked just the right person, for this magical story was something for all of us.

We invite you to read her story, written for Caemon, here on our blog:

~~~

“Caemon’s Story” by Crystal McDougall

Once upon a time there was a boy who died.  Half of him went floating, but the other half stayed grounded. The half a boy looked with his half-a-boy eyes and he saw what he saw, and what he saw was Light.

“Who are you?” asked the half a boy.

“I am Light. You have known me your whole sweet life.  You have played in my rays and I have warmed your face every day.  Since I know you so well, I volunteered to come and collect you.”

“Where are we going?” asked the half a boy curiously.

“Wherever you want,” answered Light. “You can go anywhere and be anything.”

“Anything?!” the half a boy shouted, positively glowing with glee.

“Anything,” answered Light beaming down on him. No sooner had the half a boy thought it that click went the light and the half a boy was a….

Bird! He was a fantastic, flighty, floating, fearless, flying bird.  He swooped and soared, singing his little heart out to the wind and sky.  He gathered speed and shot straight down, so close to the ground that if Light had eyes she would have covered them.  But the half a boy pulled up just in time and went skimming over the grass so fast it tickled his belly.  He whooped and hollered and did loop-de-loops until he was very happy but very tired.  Just as he landed on a branch of a nearby tree, big wet raindrops began to fall from the sky.

“Light!” shouted the half a boy in the bird’s body.  “I have no nest to take shelter in, and flying is fun but it sure is a lot of work. Can I be something else?”

“Anything you want,” answered Light.

“Anything?!” sang the half a boy in the bird’s body.  No sooner had the half a boy in the bird’s body thought it that click went the light and the half a boy was a ….

Deer!  He was a remarkable, rambunctious, racing, radiant, running deer.  He dashed through the sweet smelling forest leaping and jumping.  He skipped over streams and splashed through brooks.  He pranced and bounced and danced his heart out, and soared over a bush so high that if Light had eyes she wouldn’t have believed them.  But after a while the half a boy in the deer’s body began to slow down.  He stopped in the middle of the sweet smelling forest and listened to the peaceful quiet. 

Then the half a boy in the deer’s body said, “Light, running is fun, but it is hard work. Can I be something else?”

 “Anything you want,” answered Light.

“Anything!?” laughed the half a boy in the deer’s body.  No sooner had he thought it that click went the light and the half a boy was a…

Crocodile! He was a sly, strong, swift, sensational, swimming crocodile.  He glided through the cool green water with ease. He zigged and zagged and dipped and dove to his heart’s content.  He whipped his powerful tail in the water and dove straight down to the bottom to settle in the mud so dark that if Light had eyes, she wouldn’t have been able to see.  The half a boy in the crocodile’s body saw many wonderful and amazing things deep down under the water.  But after a while he began to tire of swimming, and he began to wish he was some place warm and dry and safe.  He swam up, up, up and barely broke the surface so his crocodile eyes gleamed above the green water.  

The half a boy grinned his crocodile grin and said, “Light, I am very tired.  I think I would like to go home to rest now.  I want to go back to my boy body.”  Light shone down on the half a boy and if Light had eyes she would have been crying.

“I am sorry my darling half a boy, but you can never go back.  You have lived so many lives and you have grown so very much that you no longer fit into your boy body.” The half a boy looked with his half-a-boy eyes and saw what he saw and what he saw was, it was true.  He had grown so much that there was no way he would be able to fit all of his half-a-boy self back into that little boy body. 

So the half a boy turned to Light and asked bravely,” Well, where do we go from here? What’s next?”

Light kneeled down right next to that half a boy and whispered in his half a boy ear, “There’s always beyond.”

“Beyond what?” asked the half a boy.

“Beyond here.” answered Light.

“How do we get there?” asked the half a boy. “Do we fly, or run, or swim?”

“No,” answered light.  “We simply walk. Beyond is just over that hill.”

“Can we rest there?” asked the half a boy, rubbing his sleepy half-a-boy eye.

“Oh yes. In Beyond everyone can rest if they so choose, or they can run or dance or sing or do anything they ever wanted to do.”

“Anything?!” smiled the half a boy still glowing with glee.

“Anything,” answered Light, and together they walked over the hill to Beyond.

~~~

And so, you see, this story is Caemon’s legacy too–this story, which has been shared with a number of children trying to cope with death, with adults trying to grasp it themselves. Our dear Crystal gave this gift to us all.

Jodi and I are occasionally asked for resources for children facing the death of a loved one. If you find yourself in this position, you may, of course, share the link to this story. A few other books we often recommend, which, not surprisingly are wonderful for both adults and children include those listed below. Consequently, these are all books that were gifted to us shortly after Caemon’s death, and they are all books we found profoundly helpful and beautiful.

  • Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children,  by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
  • The Next Place, by Warren Hanson
  • Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Patricia Schwiebert

honoring children’s grief and an open letter to our niece

About a month ago, our sweet five-year-old niece and her mom came for a visit. She has visited a few times since Caemon’s death, and each time has been difficult for her. The first time following his funeral we were still at our old house. I walked into Caemon’s bedroom to find her some books and toys to play with, as we didn’t want her to be in his room without supervision. She followed me into the room, and as I was gathering some things, she looked up at me, her big brown eyes so earnest, and she asked, “You miss Caemon?”

“I sure do, sweetheart.”

“Me too,” she agreed. “Too much.” My heart broke as I knelt down to hug her, and we talked about how much we missed him. We gathered some favorite books of his, and proceeded to read. Later, on the same visit, she was wandering throughout the house as though looking for something. A look of sadness strained her face, and Jodi asked what she was looking for. She didn’t know. Then she asked if she was looking for Caemon, and she nodded and began to cry. She knew he wasn’t there.

On this most recent visit, our niece’s grief was still very present, and while she seemed a little more easily distracted because we were in a new home, she still felt Caemon’s absence keenly. When she saw our little altar for him, she stopped and admired all of this things. She regularly grabbed his photo books and wanted to sit with us and look at them. Throughout the visit, she shared her favorite memories of Caemon: a day she and Caemon and my parents went swimming and they got to eat ice cream; another day when we went to the lake and she and Caemon played with water balloons. She delights in these memories, and we urge her to share them–with us, with her younger cousins–because we know she is one of the few children who will remember Caemon. We have such hope that any future children we may have will know Caemon through their cousin, and that she will get to relive knowing him through her sharing. This is a big responsibility for a small child, though. It’s huge burden for her to bear, and while I’m not sure it’s fair, her grasp of this loss is powerful. She knew Caemon. They were very close, and she feels his absence so deeply any time she’s around us, any time she thinks of him. She is the only child who was able to visit Caemon in the hospital (early on) or to Skype with him when he had his bald head, and, thus, she has a frame of reference for all of this.

There are other children who are trying to understand Caemon’s death, children who had played at the park with Caemon or had come to our home. A few of them still talk about him regularly. One girl has assigned him a star. Another boy asks his mom from time to time where Caemon is, wanting to know if maybe he’s still in the hospital. Other children whose parents may have only known us through this blog or other online venues have had their first talks about death with their parents through Caemon’s loss.  Our little nephew, a year younger than Caemon, a boy who idolized his “big boy” cousin, doesn’t quite know where he is. When we mention him, he still looks around as if he might see him, though he’ll tell his parents that he is in heaven.

Last month, as our visit with our niece was nearing its close, we were driving around town. From the back of the car, she shared, “I wish Caemon was still alive. I wish he wouldn’t have died.” It really is that simple. It’s what we all feel wrapped up in the perfect language.

The grief of the children in our lives is something I hold so tenderly. I am saddened that any of them have to know death at all at such a young age, but a death of one of their peers has got to be utterly confusing, mind-blowing. Many of them still don’t grasp object permanence, let alone mortality, memorial services, cancer, rare leukemias, and grieving parents. I ache for these children who are trying so hard to understand, for their parents who are trying so delicately to help their kids navigate these waters. I can only hope that by knowing our boy’s story, these kids will somehow grow up more loving, more compassionate and will help to carry the torch for a boy whose light was extinguished far, far too soon.

Shortly after her visit, my wife wrote this open letter to our niece. We would like to share it with you here:

Dear Five-Year-Old Bri,

Thank you for coming and visiting with us. You’ve grown up so much over the past year, and your heart is as beautiful as ever. I know it’s not as much fun here without your cousin, Caemon, and I know you miss him very much. We do too. Sometimes it can be very sad to see so many reminders of him but not be able to play and laugh like you used to.

We liked hearing your stories about him, and we want you to know that you can always talk to us about how you are feeling, even if it means we cry a little bit. I loved your stories about last summer and how you and Caemon practiced throwing water balloons at Grandma’s feet. That was so much fun! You two had a lot of adventures together: swimming at Morton’s Warm Springs, riding around in Caemon’s wagon, swinging on Grandpa’s giant swing, playing tea party, taking baths, and, of course, all the sweet hugging and kissing.

You need to know that Caemon loved you above all other children, Bri. He loved when you came to stay with us, and he really loved being at Grandma and Grandpa’s with you. I know you are hurting, but we hope over time the memories of you and Caemon will make you smile, and maybe you will pass on your stories to your younger cousins who didn’t know him. We hope you will keep him in your heart, as you remain in ours. We love you, Bri, and if you ever need us, we’ll be here.

Much Love,

Aunt Jo and Timi

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