I love buying and reading new books to the kids, but I have a few tucked away in my wardrobe which I read once and couldn’t bear to open again. These look like nice little stories about woodland animals going about their day to day lives, but they are dealing with much darker and more difficult themes. These books are written about death and dying, to try to help explain to children things that most adults have difficulty taking in.
I bought them a couple of months ago, when we were struggling to think of a way to tackle telling our children that their daddy was going to die. We found out in March that Roger had a tumour on his bowel, which had metastasised to his lung and could not be treated. Devastated, we struggled to come to terms with it ourselves and I guess we still are doing, but what was at the forefront of both our minds was how on earth would we break this awful news to our kids? Our son, especially, who at six is well aware that his dad is poorly, but not old enough to really understand what it all means.
Rog and I first thought the best strategy would be to wait until things became much worse to tell him what was going on. After all, why upset him about something which was going to happen months away? Surely it would be better to keep the worst from him until he really had to deal with it. Where do you even start getting advice on this sort of thing? After speaking to members of staff at the hospice where Roger is being looked after, we came to realise the sooner we got this news out there, the better.
Apparently, children who have problems after a bereavement are the ones who feel they didn’t know what was going on at the time. Even for very young children, it seems it’s so important to keep them involved and make sure they feel included and that nothing is being kept from them. We spoke at length with the hospice social worker about how to approach it, but at the time I couldn’t even speak to ask questions because as soon as I thought about the whole thing, I just fell apart.
We were told the best way to handle it was to make sure the children saw our grief, or mine especially, and not to hide feelings of sadness from them at home. It’s a horrendous experience for everyone, after all, and it wouldn’t be healthy to pretend otherwise. I’ve had no problems on that front, as my tears often come out at home when I’m not expecting them.
Sam knows I’m upset, and when he’s asked me why I’ve just had to say “I’m upset that Daddy isn’t well”, and hope that that was enough. But ultimately, when that wasn’t enough, I had some very tricky questions to answer. I was told to just be honest and frank at these times, make sure the kids know what’s going to happen and not sugar coat it. So when the question came so directly, “Is Daddy going to die?”, I just had to say yes. It was a heartbreaking moment, and one that I haven’t felt I could write about until now, a few months after it has happened.
It will seem unimaginable to most, but now death is a subject we mention often at home. Not only between myself and my husband, but when our son asks questions too. He has wanted to know why daddy can’t be made better, why he became ill in the first place and why he is in the hospice when he can’t be cured. As you can imagine, the answers to most of these questions have to be, “I don’t know,” but sometimes that’s ok too. I’ve made it clear to Sam that we don’t have all the answers, but maybe we can just be there for each other and make the most of daddy while he’s still around.
As for the books, well the ones I mentioned earlier – Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley and Always and Forever by Alan Durant – are still in the wardrobe for now. I cried so much when I read them the first time that I doubt I’d be able to get through them a second. Maybe in the future they will help, but just now I think it’s too soon.
I bought a book yesterday though which I really enjoyed and think might help too. Though not written specifically about dying, it’s called Where Do We Go When We Disappear? by Isabel Minhos Martins and Madalena Matoso. It’s beautifully illustrated and asks wider questions like where does noise go when it’s quiet? Where do socks go when we lose them? And do people really disappear when we can’t see them?
My favourite page reads: “It always takes two for someone to disappear. (One that stays and one that goes.)”
It’s one which I know I’ll read over and over, and hopefully both Sam and Florence, when she’s a bit older, will take something from it too.
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