I wasn't expecting an open casket.
My children and I walked into the room to see the mother lying lifeless, surrounded by those who loved her.
My son, then 6, tightened his grip on my hand when he glanced at the coffin. He needn't have worried. I wasn't headed anywhere near the young mother. It wouldn't have been appropriate to be any closer to the circle of grief around her.
We would have been strangers to Carolyn Dutta. My daughter, then 9 years old, played with her daughter on the playground at school. She was the only one of the three of us with the faintest connection to anyone in the room. And she was behaving as if this surreal moment was completely normal.
When I got the email from the school principal during Christmas break a few years ago, about the car accident that killed Carolyn and injured her daughter, I wondered how I would break the news to my daughter. I waited a week, until a day before the visitation.
"Maybe you could make your friend a card?" I said. She loved making cards for nearly any occasion.
She asked if she could write "We're so sorry about what happened" on the cover. I suggested she stick with "So sorry" on the front and write the note inside.
She carried the card tightly in her left hand, slightly crumpled in her grip.
When we walked into the funeral home, I realized there were few children among the hundreds of visitors. Esme, her friend who had been hurt in the accident, wasn't there when we arrived. I told my daughter we would find a relative to deliver the card to her friend.
News reports described Carolyn as a devoted, energetic mom, who loved to cook and play with her three young children.
"Picture Mother Teresa on roller skates, moving very fast," is how her sister described her, according to reports after the funeral.
Carolyn had been 44 when a drunk driver killed her during a family trip in Canada. Her husband, Suman, would be raising Esme, 8, Liam, 5, and Vivienne, 2.
At the visitation, we quickly found a relative of the family, handed her the card for Esme and left within a few minutes of arriving. We talked in the car about how many people they had to take care of them and love them, and that we would keep praying for their family.
I have thought about those three children frequently.
I took my children to that visitation because I wanted them to know that people can survive the worst kind of tragedies. And that it's important to show respect and compassion for another person's tremendous loss.
But I also needed to be reassured. This mother's death shook me. I wanted to see all the love and support that would surround her babies.
When I became a parent, my life became so much more dear to me than it had ever been. Only I know the way I can love them. I know the way in which they need me.
The Windsor (Ont.) Star reported that the week before her death, Carolyn had called her sister-in-law almost in tears.
"I panicked because Carolyn never cried," Linda McFall said at the funeral, the paper reported. "I asked her what was wrong and she said 'No, nothing's wrong. I'm just standing at the window and I'm watching Suman play with the three kids in the backyard and I'm just so happy right now.'"
I know that feeling. That poignant joy that comes with seeing your children carefree and playing and loved.
This mother, whom I had never known in her life, revealed to me something essential and timeless after her death.
Love doesn't die.