Since my mother died three weeks ago, life has been a big swirl of emotions: sadness, regret, frustration, confusion, exhaustion, relief and even a little bit of amusement.

She died unexpectedly in her sleep at age 70. I had heard her say this was how she hoped to go, so I feel some measure of relief that she got her wish. But, her grandmother lived to be 98 and her mother - a lifelong smoker - lived to be 94, so I doubt my mom expected to die so young.

The most striking part of this experience for me has been the realization that a person's friends and colleagues have such strong feelings and vivid memories - sometimes even stronger and more vivid than my own. It's been a neat experience to hear stories about my mom that I've never heard before, or had long forgotten.

Also, I've had some interesting conversations with my children about death. This year, we've had three goldfish die over a period of several months, so this is not a new topic in our house, but it is the first time my children have known a person who has died.

For preschoolers, the concept of heaven is very interesting, but confusing. My son knew that our goldfish were there, so initially he thought of heaven as an aquatic place, like a large aquarium. I found myself explaining that heaven is for both people and animals, so in heaven there is land and sea, lakes and mountains, rivers and deserts.

"Just like Earth?" Caleb asked.

"Well, a lot like Earth," I answered.

"But everyone there is dead, right?" he said.

"Yes, they are dead, but they live in heaven," I said, hesitatingly, worrying that he was smarter than me and would see the inherent contradiction in my words.

Fortunately we were interrupted by Erin, asking for a snack.

But then, the next day, Caleb asked about his Nana again. "Is she at her house?"

"Well, no, she's in heaven, remember?" I replied.

"No, I mean are you going to bury her?" he asked, clearly thinking about the goldfish burial ceremony we had in our backyard.

So that led to an explanation about cremation and burial, and telling him about scattering my mom's ashes. He thought that was pretty interesting.

A couple of days after the memorial service for my mom, I was driving Caleb and his friend, Molly, to preschool. Caleb picked up the program from the service, which has many photographs of my mom from throughout her life, and was looking at it. Molly asked him, "Who is that girl in the pictures?" Caleb answered, matter-of-factly, "that's my Nana ... she died." Molly was quiet for a few seconds, then said softly, "poor girl," and sighed. Caleb nodded in agreement.

My favorite moment in the last few weeks happened in my mom's house, where my husband and I were looking through family photos. I found a photo of my mom taken around age 4, bright eyed and smiling, with her hair in two braids.

I showed the photo to 3-year-old Erin, who at that moment had her hair in two braids, and told her, "this is what Nana looked like when she was little." Erin took the photo from me and looked at it for a long while, a huge smile on her face.

Kathryn B. Brown worked as a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner before coming to work for the East Oregonian, the Chinook Observer's sister newspaper in Pendleton. She can be reached at kbbrown@eastoregonian.com.

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