We practice these moments of departure with our children almost every day. We say goodbye to them so they learn how to say goodbye to us. When my father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I found myself in unfamiliar territory. How do I help my son say goodbye to his Granddad?
I asked friends for advice and read books explaining death to children. At the time of my father-in-law’s diagnosis, my older son was 4 years old and my younger son was nine months old. My husband and I knew that we had to tell our 4-year old, but we didn’t know how or when. Time passed, and we said nothing.
Eight months later, my in-laws returned early from a bucket list trip to Italy because my father-in-law was unwell. Soon after, my husband and I were sitting on my son’s bed–the bed my husband slept in as a child–after bedtime stories. This felt like the right time, and I heard myself say, “We need to talk about something important.” My son and I locked eyes and I felt a tidal surge rise up and swallow my words.
After my husband told him, he looked at us and said, “Why is Granddad going to die?”
“He is very old and very sick. His body will stop working soon.”
He took this in and asked again, “Why is Granddad going to die?”
“Well, dying is normal and natural. Do you remember when we read the book about the beginning of the universe? Do you remember how we are all made of star stuff and our molecules will break down and become part of something else?”
Tears welled up and glassed over his dark brown eyes. He paused a moment and said, “You mean, I’m going to die?”
We were all crying. I tried to say, “We love you so much, and we’re so glad you are here with us, and yes we will die and you will die and there’s no easy way to understand why. But we think living and loving is worth it and we hope you come to feel that way too. And we will always be part of each other.”
But all I could do was meet his gaze and say “yes.”
With a mix of compassion and fear, he looked at my husband and said, “Daddy, your Daddy is going to die.”
“Yes, it’s very sad,” he said.
“Well, you’re going to need to get a new Daddy.”
Later, after I sang him songs and turned to leave, he said, “Mom, when I die I want to become part of an ichthyosaurs, an orca whale and a racecar.”
“That sounds wonderful, honey. Goodnight.”
I left his room and cried for a long time. I was grieving the loss we were facing together, but most of all I was grieving for my son: he now knew he was also dying.
Over the next few weeks, my son repeatedly asked us why his Granddad was going to die. No matter how many times we answered the question, he would ask it again. Then he began telling everyone he met the news, from his preschool teachers to the grocery delivery man.
Nine months after his diagnosis and just before my son’s fifth birthday, my father-in-law was moved from hospital to hospice, much diminished. He was thin, all bones, held up by the bed. We went to see him in the hospice on Father’s Day.
When we arrived, my son was quiet and reserved, but he eventually chatted with his Granddad and held his hand twice. Then, I took the boys to the small playground in the hospice courtyard so my husband could have some time alone with his father.
After a while, my son said, “let’s go in because I have some questions for Granddad.” Back in the hospice room, my son said nervously, “why are you…why are you…in a bed?” He was trying to get an answer to his question from the source itself, but couldn’t quite bring himself to ask it.
His Granddad replied, “I’m here in this bed so the doctors can look after me and make me better.”
He looked at the tube coming out of his Granddad’s nose, watched the machines by his bedside, then turned to me and said, “Okay, that’s it. I’m ready to go home.” I said goodbye and kissed my father-in-law on the forehead. He died two days later.
I knew that this death was going to be difficult for our family. And I knew that it was important to prepare my son as best I could. His compassion for his own father’s loss and his courageous attempts to make sense of death taught me how lucky I am to have this emotional thinker in my life. He also taught me that the attempt to answer the questions death poses is more important than the answers themselves.
When pick up my son from preschool, I peek into the classroom and see him sitting with a dozen other children singing songs. He’s sitting a little back from the circle, singing quietly and watching everyone else. I wait in the hallway with the other parents until we’re told the children are ready. When the teacher sees me she says, “Jack, your mummy’s here. Oh, and don’t forget this!” He leaps up and proudly presents me with an asymmetrical model precariously held together with tape. “I was worried about where bees go in the winter, so I made them a house!” he tells me. He waves goodbye to his teachers and carries the newly formed bee house out into the Scottish summer rain.
Sarah Ahrens is a writer and expat parent living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Follow her on Twitter: @sarah_ahrens1.
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