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There Is Life After Death. But It Isn't Yours.
I come from a large family. I’m the oldest of 5 children and have 18 first cousins - split equally between my mom’s and my dad’s side. When I was a kid, family gatherings were WILD. We used to meet more often when we were young, but since we grew up I’m only seeing most of my cousins on weddings and funerals. The last wedding was my own, 3.5 years ago. The last funeral is, unfortunately, today.
Today we're saying goodbye to my aunt
She was married to one of my mom's brothers for more than 50 years. She didn't attend the last few big family gatherings because of all sorts of health problems, and I kept promising myself I will visit her whenever I have a chance. I never really stopped to think that I will only get a finite number of chances before she’s gone forever. How much I wish I had prioritized that sooner!
Her husband - and my uncle - has been having all sorts of health problems for many years too, but he was determined to come to my wedding anyway. That was the last time I saw him, even though he lives in the same city as my parents. When they asked me if I'm coming to the funeral, I realized there’s only a finite number of occasions for me to meet him again as well.
My extended family rarely meets outside of the big gatherings. Some of my cousins have young children, and so we meet regularly so that our kids can hang out. But most are older than me, with kids much older than mine (one is a grandma already!), and so our pathways diverge. Everyone is too busy with their lives, work, friends, kids, parents, and siblings to also find time for cousins, uncles or nieces, as much as we enjoy one another's company.
But we do enjoy one another’s company when we finally have a chance to meet. I really wish the reason we're meeting today was a more joyful one, but I appreciate that we get to be all together. Happiness is better when shared with people who love you and wish you well, but sharing sadness and grief is also easier than dealing with them all on your own.
I’m lucky belonging to a large clan like this
I always knew that having 4 siblings is quite unusual, but never really thought about how this applies to uncles and cousins as well. My husband is an only son of an only son of an only son. His family gatherings are way less spontaneous and cheerful, and he doesn’t look forward to them as much as I do to mine.
This makes me wonder how my daughter's family life is going to be growing up. Right now she has neither siblings nor first cousins. Hopefully she'll have a brother or sister soon, but I'm not aware of any concrete plans for other kids in my closest family. Even if she does have cousins eventually, they might be much younger than her - just like my husband’s two cousins are both much younger than him. He still refers to them as “the little girls” sometimes, even though one of them just started college, and the other one is about to finish her PhD. The age gap was just too big for them to ever really play and have fun together.
I always took my extended family for granted, but now I see that my daughter might not be able to experience it. Having a bunch of loving uncles is cool, but eventually she’ll get bored with their company (and mine). Past a certain age, what makes family gatherings magical are all the other kids.
Can I do anything about this? I don’t know yet, but writing here will hopefully help me figure it out. Perhaps there’s a way to develop strong family ties with people who aren’t your blood relatives? Perhaps she’ll love being a part of our family even without dozens of kids running and goofing around?
I am responsible for what family means to my kid
Large clan or not, dozens of kids or not, my daughter’s experience of what it means to have a family is in my and my husband’s hands. Will she enjoy coming back home for Christmas when she’s older? Will family gatherings be something to look forward to, or an annoying chore?
On a day like today, nothing I could possibly do feels more important than this. When we’re gone, it’s the family that will be there with her to join her in grief. When she meets that special someone, it’s the family that will be there with her to celebrate love and new life. Who will be there for her when she’s an adult, a mom, a grandmother? How will they handle life’s ups and downs together? Will they be able to support and rely on each other?
The best thing I can do for my kid is making sure there’s plenty of people to love and support her at any time, even on the day when I die and beyond. And I’m not sure what’s the best way to get there yet, this is why I’ve started writing here. So far I strongly suspect it will require intentionally cultivating our relationships with everyone in the family, modeling the kind of behavior and communication skills I want to see more of, and creating a home where everyone feels safe, loved and welcome.
And it’s crazy to think that the seeds I’m planting now won’t affect just my daughter and the other kids I will have, but also their kids, and their kids, and theirs, for many many more years to come. Whatever I’m doing now, will be my children’s baseline of normal, the water they’re swimming in. Whatever I’m doing now, will one day be an ancient family tradition to my great-grandkids.
My life isn’t just my own
My family relationships aren’t just my own. Whatever I do will affect many generations to come - primarily in my family, but also in the families of all the other people I meet. We’re all playing small roles in a neverending stream of life, building on top of everyone else’s work and then passing it all forward.
Seen from this perspective, death is still sad and tragic, but hardly as tragic as people often see it to be. My aunt still lives with us, through her kids, and grandkids, nephews and nieces, and all the other people she’s ever met and touched.
The seeds she’s sowed will continue to grow and bring fruit for many more years to come, just like the seeds we’re all sowing now will.
There is life after death after all. But it isn’t yours.
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