The last time I lost a parent, twenty years ago, the grief process led me to a Full Moon Party on a beach in Thailand, magic mushrooms and a proposal of marriage. Unfortunately, when I lost my other parent this summer (very careless), I had my three children to look after, so whereas my first thought was ‘why not book a flight to Bangkok?’ I had to ignore that, and move swiftly on to the second though which was, ‘argghhh, how are the children going to cope with this?’
Here’s what I learnt:
Children can be brusque as hell. I should have known this from the time I had to break it to my nieces that I had accidently killed their rabbit (long story) and they had responded with “What’s for dinner?”. Fortunately for me, I was able to delegate on the breaking of the bad news this time. This is what husbands are for, right? Delegating – or getting someone else to do your dirty work – means you can avoid painful conversations like: “I’ve already told you three times; it was kidney failure…” “No, it’s got nothing to do with kidney beans…No, it’s got nothing to do with steak and kidney, please go away. No, I’m not crying. What do you mean ‘Again?’””
You know they say, in an emergency, ‘put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others’. This is true in grief too. It means you won’t be able to look after the others unless you are taking good care of yourself too. And by oxygen mask, they actually mean a very large tin of quality street.
When you or your husband, or your chosen delegated one, talks to the kids, its key to be very careful with words. Why? Because this is what your kids are going to be telling everyone for the next few weeks to everyone who asks and also everyone who doesn’t. Husband said: ‘We’ve had some very sad news, Grandad died last night.’ Lo and behold, our neighbours, Beaver leader, the women in the Co-op were all duly informed ‘We’ve had some very sad news, Grandad died’, by our youngest parrot.
I’d suggest that you avoid phrases like ‘gone to sleep’ unless you want an insomniac child. ‘Grandad has died’, ‘He is dead’ has a clarity that may sound too harsh to adult ears, but it isn’t going to leave your child confused. ‘Passed, passed away, lost, gone’, are softer but may lead to more questions than answers. Struggling with the semantics of ‘Where has he gone? Why is he lost? What did he pass?’ really isn’t going to do anyone any good.
Fortunately, while husband and I disagree on most everyday things: how to park a car, whether to have a window open while asleep and baked beans, we DO agree on the big questions such as Brexit and heaven. So we told the children that although some people think Grandad is in heaven, we did not. (This is no reflection on Grandad who was a lovely man, we just don’t believe it’s in the best interests of the country).
One child has decided that they believe in heaven. The other is content with the explanation that ‘Grandad had a happy life so…’. It’s not great, but what can you do? No one said being an atheist is easy. (Or maybe they did but they were wrong.)
As for whether children should attend the funeral or not, this of course, is down to individual choice. I wanted to wail, rip my clothes and generally indulge myself in my grief – things I knew I wouldn’t be able to do with my younger kids there. (Delegation again!) However, my teenage son wanted to come to the funeral and I’m glad he did. He generally looked dazed and confused most of the time, but in years to come, I think (hope) he’ll be proud that he was by my side and got to say his last goodbyes to his grandad.
Although the younger children may appear to be ‘over’ it, it may well be that they – like real humans! – are still struggling to process it. The weeks and months after a death are a time to take special care of each other – comfort food, favourite films (although I don’t recommend Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire – whose idea was that?), visits to favourite places. Some families like to start a new tradition like letting off balloons, making a toast, planting a tree. Animals – and all their unconditional love, (just like good grandparents!) – can be a big help dealing with loss. We’ve started walking a neighbour’s smiley dog which gives us all a lot of pleasure. Well, it was that or getting rabbits – (and we all know that never ends well!).
In some families, in the old days, the dead were hardly spoke of again. We’ve gone the other way and talk about Grandad ALL the time: The time he went to St. Ives wearing his Japanese dressing gown. The time he got lost at sea, (well, in the Thames Estuary) and had to be rescued by the coastguard, the time he would have won a county Cross country race but ran the wrong way. I love all this. We also have loads of his drawings, poems, photos. My Dad left a massive footprint behind. (Yes, husband, I appreciate the house is full of clutter, I’ll sort it all up soon!) It’s made me aware to put myself in more family photos, write more soppy letters and poems. I want to leave a big footprint too!
It’s good to be honest, there’s no shame in your kids seeing you cry, but it’s important not to lean on the kids too much. Sometimes, I want to shout, ‘I’m a fecking orphan and it’s not fair’, but I save this for my husband and friends. (Lucky them!) More than ever, the children want to feel safe and that I’m in charge. I might not feel safe or in charge but that’s my issue. They don’t need to know about that. They don’t need to know of my yearning to be adopted by Daddy Warbucks.
It occurs to me that the children don’t realise how much they have lost. Unlike me, they don’t seem hurt at the games of monopoly we hadn’t yet played, the ice creams we hadn’t had at the beach, the tournaments their Grandad didn’t get to cheer them on at. They don’t stare at other kids with their doting Grandparents and think ‘you lucky b**stards”, but that’s probably for the better.
I am proud that the kids aren’t afraid to say, ‘I’m feeling low’ or, ‘I miss Grandad’, or ‘Grandad would have loved this’. This open-ness, this acceptance, I hope will stand them in good stead in the future. So I think actually, they’re doing all right, and that, at least, is a weight off my mind right now. Their Grandad died but he loved them more than anything.
This is life. Sometimes it sucks.
by Samantha Lierens