Saturday, November 1, 2014

At the End, Charlotte Dies: a Reflection on Death for All Souls Day

Tomorrow, Sunday November 2nd, is All Souls Day. In our home we commemorate the day by going to a cemetery and praying a family rosary for people who have died. We pray particularly, but not exclusively, for our family's deceased friends and relatives.

In honor of the day, I'd like to share with you some thoughts on . . .

Charlotte's Web. I'll never forget reading it as a girl. Like many bookish folks of a certain age, Charlotte's death was the first I ever experienced, in literature or real life. The fact that anyone, let alone a main character, would actually die gave me quite a shock. I didn't have any experience with hardship or sadness in life OR books. I was part of that first generation to get trophies just for showing up. I was pretty sure she was going to pull through, somehow.

But, of course, she didn't.



I don't remember being traumatized, more just genuinely surprised. I'd never read a book before where they didn't all live happily ever after.

Wilbur survived without Charlotte, and because of her. And I carried on as well, primed now to love and lose Beth March, Anne Frank, and, eventually, Cedric Diggory <sniff>.

I really believe that what children experience in books, they are better able to process in real life. Dying, and the perception of dying, has been on my mind a lot lately. I've been praying for a change of heart for Brittany. That she might see that choosing death isn't the same thing as dying with dignity. And I've been praying for Courtney and the beautiful example of her slow progression towards dying that her family has been giving to the world. So it was with eyes wide open that I picked Charlotte's Web as a read aloud with my kids.

It's been nearly thirty years since I read it that first time, and I was impressed, again, with the simplicity of the story and the gentleness of the storytelling and the lyrical quality of the language. And we laughed out loud at Lurvy, and Avery, and Templeton.

We read a couple of chapters each day over lunch. Creeping closer and closer to Charlotte's death. As the bookmark inched towards those last couple of chapters, I wondered how my kids would handle it.


There's plenty of foreshadowing, of course, so they kinda saw the writing in the wall. And they were neither shocked NOR surprised when Charlotte died. In fact, they weren't even all that troubled, being much more interested in all the baby spiders.

When I read it as a child, I thought Charlotte's Web was an unrealistically unhappy book in which characters just die for no good reason.

But this time, I saw it differently. This time it seemed like an unrealistically happy book. Wilbur is SAVED! Charlotte dies a quiet, offscreen death. Hey, look over THERE at all the BABIES!

It's a fairy tale modern American death story. Charlotte spends herself heroically. Her unsung efforts save the life of her friend. She is a burden to none. An inconvenience to no one. She gets to make her heartfelt goodbye speech, and leave her children well-looked-after. She waves goodbye and dies alone. She leaves behind only happy memories and baby spiders.

And it's fine and lovely and we all enjoyed it.

But, now, as an adult, with a little more life experience under my belt, it doesn't seem . . . authentic.

Death IS inconvenient. It's loud and messy and expensive. It hurts, in all possible ways. Maybe a wave goodbye and a fade to black is possible for anthropomorphic spiders, but for people, there is no such thing as an easy death.

For those left behind, there is the memory of lengthy suffering, or the regret of an untimely parting. The myth of an easy death denies that every death of a loved one is a burden, but one that it's good for us to carry. But just because death isn't easy doesn't mean it isn't good.

All Souls Day is the day to remember that. It's the day to be grateful for the pain, because it meant we loved deeply and openly, all the way to the end. It's the day to remember that every end is a beginning, and every death is a birth into eternal life.

Charlotte died alone, with nothing but her pride. Wilbur was denied the gift of her last, vulnerable moments. He didn't get a chance to serve her the way she had been allowed to serve him. That's not what I want for our family. I pray for the grace to take on the burdens of illness and old age and death for the people I love. And I pray, when the time comes, for the humility to BE a burden to the people who love me.

The whole month of November is dedicated to our lost loved ones, the holy souls in purgatory. It's a great time to tell our kids about their great grandparents and great great grandparents, about how they lived and how they died. It's a great time to teach them to pray for friends and family members who have died. It's a great time to tell them about Courtney, and ask them to pray for her and her family. It's a great time to show them that, when we love each other, it's okay to be a burden. 

It's also a pretty good time to read Charlotte's Web. Because even if it's not perfect, it's still a classic.


In related news . . .

LITTLE KIDS AND DEATH: HOW TAKING MY KIDS TO A TRADITIONAL FUNERAL DIDN'T FREAK THEM OUT


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9 comments:

  1. That's a lot to think about.

    When my grandpa died, he'd been perfectly healthy and abruptly had a stroke and went to the hospital, and passed. It was a major shock, and it was as you described Charlotte - there was no end care, no sacrifice. He didn't get a goodbye speech, but it was all very sanitary. A few years later, when his wife got terminal cancer, it was completely different. There was a year of caring for her (my sister moved it and gave up all sorts of things), and doctors, and hospice, and waiting for the worst to be over at the end. It wasn't sanitary at all. It was hard, and heartbreaking, and it took a lot of effort - but it was supremely better, somehow. By some definitions, I guess my grandpa got the "better" death, but the last year of my grandma isn't something I'd want to trade, and I don't think she would have either.

    Maybe we should stop pretending, as a culture, that children aren't burdens. They totally are. I love them and I am grateful for them, but they're a responsibility and an obligation. Maybe if we could say that, not unhappily, but as a matter of fact, it wouldn't be so hard to someday be an obligation and burden to them. Part of the joy of family is knowing that you are bound to each other by more than convenience, and that there is help whether or not it's what anyone "wants." I guess this goes on with your piece about choice, but when did wanting become everything?

    Now I'm rambling. Happy All Saints' Day!

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    1. I love your comment, all of it. So insightful and so well put.

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    2. Yes, Amanda. Thank you for this.

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    3. That is an insightful comment. I think even more important than realizing that children ARE a burden, is that being a burden is NOT a bad thing. We have such a fear of "being a burden" but we really shouldn't because our "being a burden" may be "someone else's path to sanctity" and that person may NEED us to be burden for their soul.

      One thing I've come to realize is that our lives are so interconnected. I also follow Courtney's story and I really think that even though the girl has never done anything "important" by the world's standards, she has positively impacted countless people spirtually...even just by being someone that other people can pray for. I think it is when we pray for others (and get outside or our own selfishish and needs)..that really helps us grow closer to Christ.

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  2. I met you briefly at the Behold Conference in March (thanks for the great children's book on Confession!), and I just recently started following your blog. I really appreciated your insights on death and dying. What a gift that the Church sets a whole month aside to remind us to think about these themes and to specifically pray for those who have gone before us. Thank you for the suggestions on introducing these ideas to children. I'm looking forward to reading more from you!

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  3. "It's the day to be grateful for the pain, because it meant we loved deeply and openly, all the way to the end." If that's not what Christ did and what he calls us to...then I just don't know how else to describe Christianity! this was all so beautiful. I almost didn't read it because I was sure I already "knew" everything about All Soul's Day and Charlotte's Web for that matter. But I can ALWAYS count on you to bring a new, practical, and loving insight into our faith. You're children are blessed to have you for a mother!

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  4. My grandma has been a burden on someone or another for over 50 years due to mental illness and now to dementia and old age. And yet not one of us wishes her life was shorter. Rather, I've watched my mom and her sisters and brothers give of themselves patiently and lovingly and it inspires me.

    I really like what both Amanda and Amelia had to say about not pretending children aren't a burden. Because sometimes (oftentimes) they are, but they are also infinitely worth it. Last night my husband was joking with our kids about how easy life was before we had them. But after a minute he let them know he was kidding and then said, "Our loves were nothing before you came. We were selfish and immature and ridiculously sinful." That's not to say all child-less people are, of course, but simply that *our* particular path to sanctity was/is through serving our kids. I really hope that path continues with caring for my parents and in-laws when the time comes.

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  5. Beautiful post and so thankful for all the comments! I'm glad to see someone dive into this topic and admit how messy and diificult, but also how beautiful it can be.

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