Talking about Death with your child

I am one, who ultimately, just tells it like it is…

Years ago, I was trapped in a car with my niece (then 6) in the back seat, with my brother and sister-in-law in the front. Clear out of the blue, my niece turns to me and asks “where did princess Diana go after she died?”

My sister-in-law is an atheist, so this was a tricky question. My brother, who of course came from the same womb as me, as well as grew up in the same household as me, but yet, we don’t have the same views on how to discuss anything difficult. My brother chooses silence and avoidance, where as, I just answer the question.

There was a lot of silence in the car, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to respond to my niece’s question, but I decided to leap in, and give it a go.

I said that princess Diana is now living without pain, and watching over the world, and taking care of everyone who needs a guardian angel. This wasn’t the best answer, but I had never really talked about death with a little person before. My brother ignored the whole conversation, and my sister-in-law jumped in and said that when people die, they don’t go anywhere, they are just gone.

Being a more spiritual person, and having had so many people close to me die, I don’t like the idea of the finality of just dying and not going anywhere. The finality sounds really scary, since I am not scared of death or life, I like to think that our spirits live on.

Fast forward to me becoming a Mother. I had to introduce my son to my Father, who of course passed away long before he was born. I had watched for years my brother avoiding all conversations about my Father, and never discussing him EVER to my niece. I thought that was just cruel. My Father is a huge part of the woman I have become, I think he deserves to be in my child’s life, even in spirit. From the moment I knew I was pregnant, I had vivid dreams of my Father holding a baby boy. They were so vivid, that when I woke up, my intense happiness would soon become intense sadness, I hated waking up from those dreams. I knew somewhere, somehow, my Father and his grandson had met. So I knew, my duty was to keep my memory of my Father alive, by talking about him. Even if it included any uncomfortable discussion about his death.

So, I knew the uncomfortable conversation was coming. It has to at some point doesn’t it. It finally came after the Terry Fox Run at school. My son came home and asked about my Father’s death, how and why he died.

First, I told him that my Father died of Cancer, and that years of working in the kind of environment he worked in, gave him very little chance to fight the cancer. He battled cancer bravely, but finally decided it was time to move on, and live without pain, but he was lucky, he was going to be reunited with friends and family he hadn’t seen for a long time. My son wasn’t completely satisfied, he asked more questions.

He asked me why it was ok for me to have let him go. I told him the only thing I could. I looked into my child’s eyes, who incidentally inherited my Father’s very blue eyes and replied “Every once in a while, I get very sad that my Father isn’t here anymore, that he didn’t get to hold you, or take you for ice cream, or tell you stories of far off countries. I get sad that he never got to see me graduate from University, or meet your Daddy, or walk me down the aisle, but you know what. He lives in my heart, and I am grateful to have had the years I did with him. Somehow though, I know in my heart, he was with me in every single one of those moments, and when things get rough, he talks to me in my dreams. You know what? He put a pretty huge mark on this earth, and left so many people better off for knowing him, that it would be selfish of me to think that maybe, he had a bigger calling and was really needed elsewhere.”

To this, my son said “Mummy, I love you, and maybe if I really try, maybe Grandpa will visit me in my dreams.” That made me smile, because I honestly think that they already met.

So here it is, no matter what your faith, being open about the discussion is pretty important, little people have big minds and big questions that need to be answered.

The Day the Title Changed

He was wheeled in, it took 20 minutes for my Mother and I to slowly get my Father down the stairs, both of us flanking each side of him. I was holding my father up, timing his step with my step. He would wince and groan with every step, in complete agony, his feet swollen from all the medication, and cancer that was coursing through his body, killing every last healthy cell. I could feel him leaning into me, I was stronger than my Mother, I could hold what little of a body frame my Father had left, he would lean in, and hold on with what strength he had left.

We would get him to the car, and carefully help him swing his legs into the passenger side, and buckle him in. He would wince, and moan as the seatbelt would hit him in all the wrong places. He was in absolute agony.

I would run back into the house, and get the wheelchair, and throw it in the trunk, and climb into the backseat. My Mother would drive to the hospital to the entrance, and I would step out, and begin the process of getting my Father out of the car. My Mother not able to do it by herself. I would shift his legs out of the car, and he would wrap his arms around me, so I could pull him up and then we would do a little dance turn, and I would sit him in the wheel chair. With every movement, his body felt like it would break, the cancer had taken so much out of him.

I would wheel him up to the front, and check in for his weekly appointment at the cancer ward, my Mother would go and park, while I would tell my Father jokes, and laugh about something crazy we would be able to do soon. That lie somehow made everything feel better, like in that moment, he could miraculously get well, and walk out of the cancer centre cancer free. My Mother would arrive out of breath from running from the parking garage to the centre, making sure she didn’t miss a bit of the appointment.

I sat quietly watching my Mother and Father holding hands, the love between them was always palpable, they were so deeply in love with each other.

The doctor came out, and ushered my parents to the room. I sat outside, waiting, just waiting.

The door opened, and my Mother motioned to me to take the wheelchair, I took over, and rolled my Father out of the doorway. I overheard my Mother sharply speak to the doctor “You will address my husband with respect, and speak to him by his name. He is not defined by his cancer, he has served this country, represented this country, and been under fire. He is not just your patient with a number, he is a human being. You have done nothing but dress him down, and curtly speak to him. You could learn a lot from my husband on diplomacy and bedside manners.”

My Mother has always claimed she speaks up and defends people. I can honestly say, she has never done such a thing. She has always been a people pleaser, and a woman who has never wanted to rock the boat. This time, she was so angry, I could hear her grief, her sorrow, and her piercing anger. She wanted the doctor, the staff and the world to know, that my Father was never going to be defined by his cancer, that he was always more than that, and should be treated as such.

I remember vividly, my father smiling, and chuckling. He was proud that my Mother stuck up for him, and became his voice. We began to walk away, and the nurse turned and said goodbye to my Father, and addressed him by his name.

The next time we came for an appointment, the Dr. looked at my Father, and addressed him, looked at him, and acknowledged him. In that moment, my Father wasn’t just a cancer patient, he became a diplomat who just happened to have cancer.