One cold morning in the 1970s, during my breakfast and Sesame Street, Big Bird was passing out drawings he had made of his friends. Mr. Hooper had been a friend of Big Bird and often made him birdseed milk shakes. Big Bird was excited to share his drawing with Mr. Hooper and headed toward Hooper’s Store, but the Sesame Street adults called Big Bird back.
We learned Mr. Hooper had died, but Big Bird did not understand and announced he would just wait for Mr. Hooper to come back. The adults explained: people don’t come back after they die. Big Bird demanded to know why things had to be this way.
“Who is going to take care of the store?” Big Bird asked. “And who is going to make my bird seed milkshakes and tell me stories?”
The adults reassured Big Bird they would take care of everything and look after him, but Big Bird was still troubled.
“Well, I don’t understand!” Big Bird said. “You know, everything was just fine! I mean, why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason!”
No one had a ready answer at first, and then Gordon stepped up. “Big Bird, it has to be this way. Because.”
My mother had just died, and that was all I ever heard when I asked questions. Was that really the best grownups had to offer? I looked down at my soggy cereal and wondered how they could feed such crap to poor Big Bird. It wasn’t fair. Big Bird deserved a better answer than that, and so did I.
“Just because” has become a popular-by-default answer to children’s questions about not having a funeral, church service, or a proper window of time at the funeral home to say goodbye. How do we explain a global pandemic to a child?
Phoebe is six years old and her mother just died. She informs me (her family mortician) that she already knows there’s a bad sickness going around causing people to die and that she’s supposed to sing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to lessen the chance of accidentally killing someone while washing her hands. She had to cancel her birthday party and miss out on Sesame Street Live! but she is determined not to let the coronavirus interrupt her grief. She stares at me and asks: “What would Big Bird do?”
The following evening, Phoebe rides with me in the hearse carrying the baby pink casket of her mother. We are the lead car in a mourning parade. The route encompasses about ten blocks, passing her mother’s childhood home, playground, grade school and favorite corner store where she’d ride her bike as a kid to get ice cream on summer days.
Phoebe’s family members drive in procession behind us, and friends wait on sidewalks to wave and cheer. The last vehicle in the cortege is a pick-up, and friends are able to place flowers, cards, money, oranges and soaps from her mother’s favorite beach hotel in the truck bed. Even a disposable camera is tossed in containing colorful mourning parade pictures of this unique way to grieve during the time of COVID-19.
Like the coronavirus, there is no cure for grief, but we can create special ways to mourn our loved ones, like my new friend Phoebe does for her mother on this cold evening.
Her bright smile and big heart move me to tears. We are two motherless daughters leading a parade of love, working together to find meaning in loss during a global pandemic.
Phoebe draws a deep breath and sheds a tear as she reaches for my hand and asks me why I’m crying.
“Just because.” It’s all I can offer her in that moment.
“Yeah,” she replies with another bright, resolute smile. “Me, too. Just because.”