I talked to a friend this morning to catch up on things. She recently had a double mastectomy, due to a disconcertingly high risk factor for developing breast and or ovarian cancer. Her Grandmother and Mother both died from Ovarian cancer and her Aunt (her Mother's sister) sounds like she is finally losing the battle to cancer herself. With her Aunt slowly winding out her last few days/weeks at home the family is preparing for her death. My friend has two young daughters, the oldest one being very close to her Great-Aunt. My conversation touched on what to say and how to explain death to young children. She wanted to know how I explained Brad's final illness and death to my girls.
T was 2 1/2 years old when her father died from cancer. She knew her father was sick and may have understood he was getting sicker. In his last month of life he suffered from extreme headaches that were extremely debilitating. I often had to tell her to play quietly because Daddy wasn't feeling well and his head hurt. She drew into herself in her Daddy's last month, I am sure not really knowing exactly what was going on, but knowing that it was something serious. Where television had never held any interest for her, it suddenly drew her in. No surprise when Daddy napped often and Mommy withdrew and cried a lot more. TV was a happy place where everyone was having fun. At our house everyone was serious. Even with doctors trying to be nice, I suspect she sensed how much angst the doctors caused for her adults. She did not have a lot of warmth for them, despite the smiles they offered her.
Brad was hospitalized in his last few days. He essentially had a stroke and seizures at the end left him in a coma. I was terrified and desperate and not sure what to do. We had been seeing a social worker at the hospital and she helped to give me ideas of how to handle this final turn of events with the girls. R was only 10 months old at the time, so was intellectually beyond being able to comprehend what was going on. I tried to have familiar caregivers surround her and tend to her needs. When Brad was stabilized, I took T to the hospital so that she could see her Daddy. I explained that Daddy was very, very sick and that the tubes coming out of him were to help him breathe and give him medicine. Essentially I described Daddy as alive and sleeping, but very sick. I told her that if she wanted to touch him or hug him she could. It was a bit much for her and she was not comfortable with that. She did not want to touch him and did not really say anything. We had brought her favourite bunny on the suggestion of the social worker and I gave it to Daddy. I told T it was so that Daddy would know that she had been there and would have a piece of her to hold onto. She was okay with that, but we left fairly quickly.
The next morning Brad died before anyone could come and visit him. I believe that he decided it was time and did not want anyone to uncomfortably hover over him fretting, worrying and not knowing what to say. His parents were there moments after he died and I arrived shortly thereafter. My Mother and Father got the girls fed and dressed, then brought them to the hospital. The social worker and Brad's palliative doctor took me aside and counselled me on what to say to T. The tubes were removed from Brad before we brought the girls in, so as to lessen fears and stresses. R was brought in and shown Daddy and told he had died. T came in and I held her as I explained that Daddy had died. That meant that he couldn't breathe anymore or eat. He could not drink, walk or move his body. The medicine that the doctor's had given him had stopped working and Daddy's body couldn't fight off his sickness any more. Daddy loved us all, but he was gone and not coming back. It was some of the hardest words that I have ever had to wrench from my lips and I wanted to vomit for saying them. The truth was as hard for me to understand, as for her to hear and comprehend. Reality is not pretty or kind in situations such as this. The mixed blessing of it all was that grief does not touch children the same way that it affects adults. That being said they are affected by the grief process and even R felt the vast changes that were going on in her world. Children may not be able to understand all of the complicated emotions that adults grapple with, but they see the people in their world being affected by it and feel sadness in their own way. Time brings the reality of their loss into a reality that they can absorb slowly. It can take many years for children to fully understand and come to grips with such a significant loss. My own experience of losing my Father at the age of five has taught me this.
My conversation this morning brought me back to my not distant loss. While sad to delve into, it is my reality and will always form a part of my world. The glimmer that made the conversation more dear was the recognition from my friend that my words may help her when it comes time to tell her daughter about a loved one's loss. My story is painful, but my story can help others. I am not alone in my pain and neither should anyone else be.