In the Face of Death, Children are Resilient
Pressing tightly against each other with their daughters Lulu and Tess sandwiched in between, Mark and Leigh Funderburk steadied themselves as they began the impossible: delivering their 13-year-old son’s eulogy. As Leigh began, her voice anguished yet composed, Lulu nestled her dirty blond hair further into her parents’ sides. Taking turns, Mark and Leigh described the type of sibling that Otto was before leukemia robbed his right to life: a caring peacekeeper, occasional instigator, and most of all, loving big brother. Looking at Lulu in her oversized Otto Strong shirt, I tried to fathom how a six-year-old would cope with the death of her older brother. Tears poured down my cheeks.
As I wiped my eyes, I scanned the sanctuary in search of familiar faces. Pew after pew was filled with kids and their parents. Otto, aka O-bomb, was a talented baseball player, and this crowd of young families seemed more appropriate for a little league game than a funeral. How would all of these kids process Otto’s passing?
Searching for a ray of positivity, my mind wandered to something I’d recently read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book, David and Goliath, about how children are impacted by death. The phenomenon, which Gladwell calls “eminent orphans” illustrates how a disproportionate number of successful people have experienced the death of a parent at a young age.1 In fact, almost a third of US presidents and two thirds of British prime ministers have lost a parent before the age of 16.2 And it’s not just heads of state, from Stephen Colbert to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a seemingly lopsided number of eminent people have experienced death at a young age. Turning my eyes back to Lulu at the podium, I imagined the difficult road that lay ahead, and all of the sudden, Gladwell’s phenomenon made a lot more sense; if this girl can cope with the death of her brother, she can handle anything.
As Mark described Otto’s ascent to heaven, Lulu’s little hands gripped tighter around her parents’ waists. Her grip showed pain, but also strength. In his research, Gladwell focused on children who lost their parents, but seeing the Funderburk family unit huddled at the podium made me wonder about the impact on children who have lost siblings. Sadly, this family’s experience was more common than you would think. In fact, the National Institute of Health reports that pediatric cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in American children.3 Last year, the NIH estimates that 15,590 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 were diagnosed with cancer and 1,780 died from the disease. The thought of 1,179 other families delivering similar eulogies was nauseating.
Over the last seven months, the Funderburk family had experienced acute tragedy; from watching their son respond well to the initial leukemia treatment to seeing him crippled by a fungal infection and subsequent return of his cancer. Now, as they lay their son to rest, they faced perhaps the most difficult piece: living the rest of their lives without Otto. Of everything we experience throughout life, can anything be worse than watching your thirteen year-old child or sibling suffer and ultimately succumb to a deadly disease? This is tragedy in its purest form, and yet, Gladwell’s research suggests a phenomenon this catastrophic also has a unique ability to be a powerful force for good. But right here, right now, this family was living a nightmare. The thought of a silver lining seemed too abstract and inappropriate.
Gently, Mark’s voice quieted to a whisper as he delivered the final words of his son’s eulogy, and as he did, Leigh leaned in and strengthened her loving embrace of Tess and Lulu. Amidst profound pain, this family demonstrated unshaken unity. Within this huddle lay the bedrock of resilience.
----------------------------------------------------------------1. British prime ministers during time period examined was 1800-WWII
2. Gladwell also acknowledges that death can also have a strongly negative impact and cites the fact that prisoners are between two and three times more likely to have lost a parent during childhood than the population as a whole.