Talking about death with my son

I was 13 years old on December 29, 1981 — the day that my great grandmother Minnie Wise Florian died in Liberty, Kentucky. I was with her when she passed, a few weeks after her 89th birthday. It was a traumatic night. My father was out, playing basketball with some old high school friends, and I’m not sure where my mother and sister were. It was just me and my grandparents there when my great grandmother, who we all called Ma Florian, passed away at the kitchen table, near where she used to shell beans and grind country ham into a kind of cotton candy-like substance. My grandfather had been drinking, and I remember him holding the phone and trying to call for an ambulance with no success, as my grandmother, who was suffering from ALS, was talking to her mother, attempting to call her back to our world. I took off barefoot to the house next door, where I knew a doctor lived. By the time my father had returned, his grandmother — the woman who had raised him during much of his young life — had been taken away to the local hospital where she’d been pronounced dead. It was the first time, I believe, that I ever saw my father cry. And that memory came back to me today as I sat next to Arlo on the bank of the Huron River, sobbing.

“When’s the first time you remember seeing your father cry?” That’s a question that I should remember the next time I’m interviewing someone. I suspect, for quite a few people, there’s a lot of meaning to be found in exploring that moment.

I’m not sure what happened this week, but, since turning nine years old, Arlo has changed in a way. He’s become more serious, and more empathetic… at least in these kind of brief flashes, where we’re alone together, and out of the house. Today, as I was sitting alongside him on a fallen tree, crying my eyes out, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked if there was anything that he could do to help. I was upset at the time, but I was also really proud of him for understanding the situation for what it was, and trying, in his way, to help talk me through it. [He asked if it might help if we walked to one of my favorite spots.]

It all started when, noting a small path toward the river, I suggested that he and I try it out, ultimately finding a sunny little opening on the bank with a fallen tree at perfect bench height, surrounded by the hoof prints of deer. He remarked at how “pretty” it was, and suggested that we sit and talk for a while. After about five minutes, I suggested that we get up and keep moving, and he responded by asking if we could sit a little longer. I told him that we could, and I asked if there was anything specific he wanted to talk about, or if he just wanted to listen to the water and the birds for a while. He responded by saying that he was afraid of death.

What ensued was a long conversation about death, during which he said, “This would be a nice place to die, sunny and peaceful,” referring to this spot which he and I had found. I agreed with him, and we talked more about birth, death, different visions of the afterlife, and a lot of other stuff. He then asked about suicide, and why so many people in our family, including my Uncle, had killed themselves. And we talked some more. And at some point he said, “It probably made Mimi Dorothy’s heart really sad that her son killed himself.” And I guess it was the thought of losing a son to suicide, but I just couldn’t hold it together. I started telling about how it had affected my grandmother, having lost both her son and husband to suicide, but, a few sentences in, I just started sobbing. It was at the point in our conversation where I was telling him how, outside of my Uncle’s funeral, my grandmother had hugged me tightly and asked if I would be there for her like a son now that her only son was gone. It’s something that I hadn’t consciously thought about since she died a few years ago, and I just broke down.

It was a good moment for us, as father and son, I think. At least he didn’t seem to be too traumatized by it, and I found it cathartic, as it forced me to reflect on how incredibly fortunate I am to have make it this far, to have been able to see him grow into the thoughtful, inquisitive little man he is today. It’s truly a gift. So many of us who suffer from anxiety and depression never have that opportunity, and I’m thankful to everyone in my life who has had a hand in getting me to this place.

As for why I broke down like I did, I’m sure, in large part, it was due to thinking about the accumulated grief in my grandmother’s life, and what it must be like to lose a child, but I also think that I was just long overdue for an emotional reset of some kind, having recently lost a job after nearly 21 years, the security that comes along with it, and everything else. I thought that maybe I could avoid that by immediately throwing myself into things at the restaurant, but I should have known that eventually I’d have to confront the enormity of it all… the fact that, at 52 years old, I was essentially having to recreate myself, and find new ways to care for my family. And, on top of it all, as you might imagine, there’s trying to navigate a new startup through both a pandemic and the economic uncertainty that surrounds it. The good news is, I apparently have a family that cares for me, and a nine year old son who’s already man enough to put his hand on my shoulder and ask me if he can help. I’m in a much better spot than most, and I am eternally grateful.

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18 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2020 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    Get used to it Mark. I have turned into a weepy old man as I’ve aged. For example yesterday Lynne made me cry. Nothing she did, but she reminded me of my good friend Bob who was left to die by U of M hospital. At this point more and more of my close family are dead (my niece and goddaughter just lost her husband at age 59 covid ? if we only had adequate testing), and in general it seems like I know more dead folks now than living. Then just the other day I had a good cry with my friend Johnny as we lamented the pain and suffering we had witnessed together and the litany of dead friends we share. Embrace your tears, they will make you a better stronger father.
    The first time I remember my dad crying was just a few tears when I was 9 or 10 as he described how he survived but his comrades did not during a battle in WWII–saw him weep profusely after the death of my sister (suicide and the loss of hope is ever present in some lives).

  2. Demetrius
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing that beautiful story, Mark. I appreciate your willingness to be so honest and raw.

    I know it’s sort of a cliche, but often-times, these difficult periods of change, these “resets,”are exactly what’s needed, and in retrospect, end up being preludes to entirely new and unexpected chapters in our lives.

  3. Grandma
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I am so proud of you and love you so deeply.
    And I miss you like crazy, my son.

  4. Heather
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for sharing these stories and beautiful moments with your exceptional son, Mark. Grief is so much a part of human condition, and I believe when we submit to its agony, we cleanse our souls and become more compassionate beings. I occasionally find myself sobbing for folks grief being expressed by victims of racism, covid and poverty on the internet. I find myself a better person for it.

  5. Lynne
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Crying in front of your son is a gift to him. Because too often men in our culture are discouraged from that kind of emotional expression.

    I am sorry I made you cry, wobblie but glad you loved someone enough to shed tears over their memory.

    I am not sure exactly what it is about the pandemic but I have been crying over past grief a lot lately. And others I know are doing the same.

  6. Lisa Dengiz
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    You are such a compassionate, thoughtful and kind man, Mark. You beloved son is so lucky to have such an honest and loving father and we are all blessed to be able to call you friend.

  7. Gene
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful. Love you. Love Arlo and his hat. I’m a cry baby – but i like it. Crying can be like laughter, just with water.

  8. Janice Anschuetz
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    A wonderful and touching story Mark. Thank you for sharing. My husband and I had talked about death quite often and I am glad that we shared our philosophies and wishes. He died 10 months ago.

  9. Anonymous
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    If I bring 2 N95 masks with me, then I could give you a hug. Virtual hug anyway. We are all a bit becalmed by this pandemic. Here’s to fair winds and clear skies come spring.

  10. Posted December 4, 2020 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    So moving. As Lynne said, it’s a gift to your son to show him that men can be that vulnerable and emotional. I think this time is so hard that we’re all more fragile and more raw then ever. And re-inventing yourself during a pandemic is definitely walking a high wire without a net – I salute you!

    I hope all of us come through this with more compassion and more ability to be vulnerable together – it would be one of the very few good things that might come out of this awful time.

  11. Bonnie T Ervin
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Thank you for sharing. Profound thoughts and actions.

  12. Posted December 4, 2020 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    Oh, wow, Mark. This is heartbreaking and beautiful and necessary. Arlo will remember this. I will, too.

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted December 4, 2020 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful.

    I’m so glad your son and you are building this profound relationship on your walks. His questions were good ones as were your answers. I have had conversations like this with my kids. Still I like to imagine others aren’t saddled with family traumas such that such conversations become part of preparing our kids for survival. You and I being around the same age, we were told if we built a secure enough life for our kids and moved past family struggles, we could sort of self-actualize healthy kids from healthy lives. But it turns out the effects of trauma can pass from generation to generation even if we do everything right. (Epigenetics is a bitch). That’s a sobering reality and it mean conversations like those you have with Arlo will help prepare him for whatever comes his way. He will also be strengthened by watching you change your life at 52. It’s harder than when we were young. Like many things. But rediscovering ones own resilience is also deeply grounding.

  14. Arika
    Posted December 5, 2020 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this. This is a hard time for everyone, although the specifics can be different for each of us. I’m sure the job loss, even in the midst of exciting new developments, feels destabilizing.

    My Dad isn’t what I’d call “a crier” but he’s definitely the healthier emoter of my two parents. Seeing him cry and laugh and grieve and smile and basically exhibit a whole range of emotions helped to set a very high bar for men in my life. I think that by being open with Arlo, you are likely doing a similar thing, plus modeling the range of feelings that adults have; crying does not end at childhood and It doesn’t make one “weak”- it makes one human!

    As always, love reading what you share with our community- thanks for sharing :)

  15. Al Zaretskie
    Posted December 6, 2020 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Mark. We never got a lot of time to hang out and get to know each other better, but I instinctively knew how reflective and insightful you are. Your story made me think of a time two years ago when I went to a funeral for my aunt in Eastern Kentucky. My mother, father, eldest daughter and I all drove down there together. It was a time when my daughters were losing their Swiss Grandfather, who only had a couple weeks to live at the time. At one point I saw my daughter walking with my mother, holding hands, bringing what comfort they could to each other. There is an arc to generations, to love and loss, and it presents itself in moments like you describe with your son.

  16. Jim Monsoon
    Posted December 7, 2020 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Mark. This is beautiful.

    I came here looking for the small schadenfreude of HW and EOS coming to realize they’ve been had, but had a good cry instead.
    All the best.

  17. Posted December 8, 2020 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    This is the sort of post that makes our objective of dehumanizing Mark all that more difficult.

    Seriously though, I think you are a good man, Mark, and you have a great family. I’m also very confident that any insecurities you may be feeling are soon to be overcome. You’ve always been very proactive.

  18. Posted December 10, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Well, what do you know… It turns out Mark isn’t the monster I was lead to believe he was. I hope you can forget about this little misunderstanding.

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