Be Not Afraid!

September 10th, 2013

What Do We Tell the Children: Talking to Kids about Death and Dying, helps pastors, parents, and other caregivers prepare and comfort the grieving children in their lives. What follows is an extended excerpt from the book. Learn more about the book here.

“Be not afraid” were the first words Pope John Paul II spoke when he stood at a window overlooking a massive crowd only moments after his election by the College of Cardinals. I first heard these words in 1996 in a video about the papacy, a discounted film I made my parents purchase for me. As a religiously fanatic teen, I thought the pope had a far cooler job than the president and I didn’t understand why all my peers talked about becoming president when, according to Catholic law, any baptized Catholic male could grow up to be the pope.

Bill Clinton did not wear snazzy robes or drive in a white popemobile. In my mind, being a world religious leader for an indefinite amount of time totally surpassed the powers of the presidency. Oh, and believers kiss the pope’s ring. That is the epitome of an instant ego boost. You don’t get that in the White House!

While fantasizing about how I would run my papacy, I was hardly aware that those first scriptural words that the newly elected pope spoke would become a mantra for me a few months later when I witnessed my aunt drop dead at the kitchen table.

I was raised Catholic in an Irish-Italian household. Every stereotype about Irish-Italian Catholics applies to me—every single one. For example, my great-grandfather emigrated from Sciacca, Sicily, and brought with him the Feast of Madonna del Soccorso. For the past century, as a result of my great-grandfather and his friends, Bostonians have processed a large statue of the Virgin Mary through the North End of Boston during a three-day religious party called the Fisherman’s Feast.

My people, these feisty Italians, strap an eight-year-old girl to a crane, dress her like an angel, and swing her from a balcony as they toss confetti, pray in Italian, and rile up the crowd. I attended this feast every August until I was an adult. The only year I missed was 1996.

That summer I missed the Fisherman’s Feast because of an invitation from my Irish grandparents, who encouraged my sister and me to spend a week with them. I loved spending time at their home in Maine. It was a fairly secluded house in the woods. My grandfather knew the dirtiest jokes, which he would share with me when we went fishing. It was the only time I got to hear those jokes, because my grandmother was not around to yell at him for telling them. Our fishing trips captured the quintessential nature of our grandfather-grandson relationship. My grandmother, however, admittedly wished she had become a nun and was determined to make me a priest. When Gramps and I finished fishing and telling jokes, I would return home, where Grandma was waiting. She and I would pray, which naturally made me feel less guilty about all the dirty jokes.

This back-and-forth game of baiting the hook, telling a joke, and repenting in prayer went on for a few days, until my aunts and uncles arrived. They drove up from Massachusetts in time for lunch. My sister and I were thrilled because we knew the adults would spoil us. We also loved the stories they shared about their youth. I suppose it made them more relatable. And, of course, their fake Irish brogue somehow made them great storytellers.

This lunch quickly became an unforgettable moment in my life. Once everyone arrived we got down to business. Tuna melts were made. The fruit salad was tossed, and we debated whether to eat pie then or save it for dinner.

The adults sat around the table eating their lunch and complaining about the increase in toll rates on the turnpike. My sister and I sat at the counter, eavesdropping and plotting how we could get pie for lunch and dinner.

Not long after we sat down to eat, we were startled by a frantic scream. My Aunt Barbara looked on in horror as my Aunt Jeanette slouched over the table.

There are only a few moments in my life that I remember with such painful clarity. This is probably the clearest.

Within moments of Barbara’s yelp, chairs were flung across the room, the table was pushed against the wall, and my grandmother and uncle were lowering Jeanette to the floor to begin resuscitating her. They would remain in that position, in chase of her fleeting life, for the next forty-five minutes. My Uncle Charlie, Jeanette’s husband, was responsible for chest compressions as my grandmother counted and pushed breath into Jeanette’s lungs.

My sister Kristyn and I stood there. We just stood there watching Jeanette’s color change and the faces of the adults turn to unforgiving fear.

My grandfather was a stoic man, but he fumbled with each word as he spoke with the 911 operator. He couldn’t tie his shoelaces as he prepared to go to the hospital. Kristyn and I stared at the unfolding scene until I decided I had to do something. Pushing my way through the adults with Kristyn in tow, I grabbed my grandmother’s rosaries to prepare for some fierce praying. I looked at Kristyn and saw her distress.

What was I supposed to do with my little sister? I paused, looked around my grandparents’ bedroom where I had rushed to get the rosaries, and noticed that the closet had a lock. Tossing my sister into the closet, I shouted, “Be not afraid!” and locked her in. Running out of the room, I kept shouting, “Be not afraid!” I was trying to convince her that it was OK; but I was also trying to convince myself as my chest pounded harder and harder and as I stood in the corner crying while I prayed—prayed and watched my grandmother count to ten and breathe into Jeanette.

Forty-five minutes after CPR began, the volunteer EMTs arrived. Charlie and my grandmother stepped back from Jeanette.Their work was done. Some device was hooked up to Jeanette, and I was shooed from the room. From around the corner, I heard the device’s robotic voice counting and instructing. I listened to the whimpers of the adults and shouted up the stairwell to my sister, “Be not afraid! I said, ‘Be not afraid!’” I could hear the crowds, like those gathered for the election of John Paul II in Saint Peter’s Square, cheering and shouting, “Good advice, boy. Good advice!”

Jeanette was loaded onto a stretcher and ushered down the lawn to the ambulance. The ambulance sat in the driveway for another ten minutes as the medics attempted to resuscitate her while my grandparents and Charlie waited to follow behind in their car. The tension was growing as the rest of us waited on the stoop. “What are they waiting for?” we asked one another every few minutes. Drive already! And then, almost in a demonic voice, I began cursing at the paramedics. I shouted unholy and bad words that my grandfather would use only if the fishhook caught his finger or the big bass got away. No one stopped me. My fear turned to rage, and so too did the grief that followed in the days and months ahead.

“Be not afraid.” All these years later it is still an expression I say to myself often in tense situations. When I was a hospice chaplain, I frequently walked into rooms that contained sobbing family members or a terrified patient. “Be not afraid,” I’d tell myself.

Now as a director of two children’s bereavement centers, when a dad calls me to ask how he should tell his three- and seven-year-old children that Mom died this morning, I still tell myself, “Be not afraid.” Fear is usually present in my work, and each time I experience it I come to better understand why I felt so alone and isolated after Jeanette died. It’s easy to look away but a lot harder to reach out and touch the flame.

I started high school two weeks after Jeanette’s death. The experience of going to high school was scary enough, but now my mind was clogged with images of my dead aunt. What had I witnessed? What is this thing we call death? How was she hugging me at 1:00 p.m. and dead by 1:30? Where did she go, and how do I make sense of what I saw? And, how about those prayers I so frantically prayed? No saint could have prayed like me on that day!

I wanted to talk about it. I needed to talk about it. In the days leading up to Jeanette’s funeral my family had entertained some discussion of that August afternoon. But by the time school started in September, I was alone. My sister was afraid to talk about it, most likely because she did not want to end up in a closet again. My grandparents were in Maine, and we all knew that my grandmother was struggling with what happened, so I didn’t want to trouble her with my grief.

I wrote about my feelings in typing class, a skill-development class that students were required to take freshman year. Every opportunity I had, once a week for four months, I manipulated the assignment to meet my needs. If the assignment was to write about nature, I would write about the cycle of life and death, and retell the story of Jeanette’s death. If the week’s topic was sports, I’d talk about the game of life and death, winners and losers.

One day in January the teacher asked me about it. She said, “You type fast and you’re a good writer.” I proudly told her, “Everything I write is true.” Instantly, she put the narrative together. Her eyes bulged, which was quite noticeable given her small stature. “Oh, well, this is just inappropriate. I don’t want to see anymore of this. No more!” she barked at me as if I had done something wrong. She didn’t even take a second to ask a follow-up question or to pause before responding. And in a millisecond that was the end of that. I was ashamed and felt like I should apologize for upsetting her. The only outlet I knew was gone. I didn’t have a computer at home. It didn’t occur to me to get a journal, nor would I have felt safe writing in a journal, because I didn’t want to chance my parents reading what I was feeling. So I held it all in.

Years later I found myself at Yale Divinity School studying end-of-life counseling and medical ethics. By this time, Jeannette’s death was something I talked about from time to time if the conversation permitted, but it was not often. I suppose, in search for meaning, I had landed in a place where I could further explore that event and its impact on me. It was not until I became a hospice chaplain, watched many people die, and found myself supporting children that I realized the impact of Jeanette’s death and our societal dilemma. In pursuit of raising awareness and empowering communities to choose a different way to help grieving children, I wrote [my book]; and I did so with the hundreds of grieving children who have shaped my understanding. I also did so with my fourteen-year-old self in mind.

By the time April 1997 rolled around, I was flunking math and other subjects. I could not concentrate because images of Jeanette and fear of my mortality kept popping to mind, unprovoked and uninvited. Soon my grief became physical. I developed chronic bellyaches and a fear that my whole family would soon be dead. The year after Jeanette’s death was a giant burp in my life simply because no one would openly talk about her death, what I witnessed, or my grief. No one even simply asked me how I was doing.

If only I knew to shout at all the adults: “Be not afraid. Be not afraid!”

Excerpt from: What Do We Tell the Children? Talking to Kids about Death and Dying by Joseph M. Primo Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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