Sometimes Light comes to us as a gentle glow, other times a glaring searchlight. Raising kids is a crash course in blinding light and the afterglow. One event stands out among many.


My sister-in-law was fighting cancer in California. On a school night at dinnertime we received a phone call, alerting us that Chris had been hospitalized.  No one knew the prognosis, but the doctors were running out of options. Despite the urgency, we couldn’t quite see a way for all of us to visit her.  Our car was broken-down and money was tight. Jim and I spent hours deliberating. The best option seemed to be for Jim to fly down alone. In our cloud of grief, we couldn’t see a solution.


Around midnight, our youngest came to our room, his face grave and tear-stained. “I want to go with Dad to California.”


Then, Jim asked him, “It isn’t because you want to fly on the airplane, too?” Our son loved (and still loves) to travel. “Not because you want to get out of school?”


Our ten-year-old shook his head, tears welling. “I want to see Aunt Chris…before she dies. I want to be with her. I want us all to be there—together! Saying good-bye….”


Somehow he sensed that Chris was dying. We had tried to keep our deliberations very vague, so the children wouldn’t be disturbed by the threatening loss, but he had picked up on the urgency, as children will do, somehow without appearing to be listening—while playing with his brother in another room.


Jim explained that he’d be spending the entire time in the hospital; this was not to be a pleasure trip. Our son didn’t care. He just wanted to be there with Chris—no matter how scary, how expensive, how sad.  He was ready for what was to come.


Then the light dawned! How we’d minimalized the depth of our children’s experience! We were right to be concerned for how the loss might impact them, but not right to exclude them from the difficult goodbyes. Birth, death, and loss are everybody’s business. Just like us, children want to express their love to dying family members.  We would have to discern just how to do it right, but our boys needed this experience as much as we did.


We bought four plane tickets on our over-used credit card.  Renting a car at the airport, we rushed to Chris’s hospital bedside and spent one last day with her. She shared a journal of artwork she’d created to express her sorrow around dying and her concern for her husband and her two teenage daughters. We sang to her, and there were many hugs, kisses, and tears. We shared this grief as a family and as the commercials blithely state, the experience was priceless. It was not the first, nor was it the last time our children would teach us. They still do.

—Claire Nail