The hardest conversation
A Different Drum
As I wrote last week, my father died in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 1st. Our son is not quite five years old, so that morning, we had with him the hardest conversation of his young life.
We’d had just a week to prepare, but we had consulted a few online resources. There are a couple of things the experts stress: first, children are very literal in their thinking, so avoid euphemisms. Secondly, children live very much in the present, so their feelings will come and go.
I’d add to that only that consulting experts is useful, but you know your own child better than anyone, so trust your instincts as well.
So, on Saturday morning on about 3 hours sleep, my wife and I sat down with our son. I began with a simple truth: “Daddy is very sad this morning”.
“Well, you remember how we visited Grandpa in the hospital the other day and he was very sick. nd yesterday, we visited him again at their house? Well, Grandpa was very sick and his body wasn’t working anymore and he died. So, I’m very sad because we don’t get to be with him anymore.”
My wife chimed in, “But we’ll remember Grandpa and all the fun things he did with us. Like how he took you to pancakes and played with you.”
“But why were you sleeping on the couch?” (Again, thinking in the present).
“When Grandpa died last night, I went over to Grandma’s house to be with them. I got home really late and you and Mommy were still sleeping, so I slept on the couch so I wouldn’t wake you up.”
“Can we have breakfast?”
“Yes, what would you like?”
“He still doesn’t get it” my wife cautioned.
“Me neither” I replied.
But the important thing is to keep the conversation open and even in your own grief, be available for tough questions.
On the way over to Mom’s later that morning, out of the blue, he chimed in, “I’m sorry Grandpa died”.
“Yes, we are too.”
He repeated the same words to my Mom as we arrived.
The blunt language children use often takes us by surprise. On Monday morning, while looking through pictures to be used at a funeral slideshow, he saw his many happy pictures rolling across the computer screen. Then one of Dad came up. “He died,” our son exclaimed.
“Yes he did”.
On Tuesday, the topic came up again, first while playing in the afternoon and later, while putting him to bed. “Daddy, when is your birthday?”
“My birthday is in just a couple of weeks. Daddy is going to be 44 years old.”
“Maybe when you’re 44, you will die.”
“No, Daddy is very healthy. I eat my vegetables and exercise. I hope I live a long time; maybe until 80 or 90 years old. I’m going to watch you grow up and maybe you’ll have your own children”
“Maybe when I grow up and get to be as big as you, I’ll die.”
“No, I think you’re going to live a long time. You keep eating your vegetables and exercising. Maybe you’ll live to be a hundred.”
“If I live that long, I’ll be bigger than the house. I won’t fit through the door.”
“No, when you get to be about 18 or 20 years old, you’ll stop growing. But, you’ll still live a long time after that. Maybe you could live to a hundred years old.”
One of things we’ve come to understand is that at this time in his life, age, height, and weight are still muddy concepts and he mixes them up frequently. Numbers over about 10 are beyond comprehension, like us trying to grasp trillion dollar budgets. He confuses growing up with growing old and dying, not yet understanding that people live most of their lives in adulthood.
Whether to take a child to a funeral is a difficult and personal choice. We decided to send him to school instead. He got to say goodbye at the viewing Wednesday night. He got one last look and told his grandfather he loved him.
After the funeral on Thursday, a friend picked him up from school with her own five-year-old and brought him to where we were. As our friend drove from Porterville to Farmersville, a rather morbid conversation was going on in the back seat. The two boys were talking about the people they knew and when they were going to die. The final conclusion was that our son’s friend’s sister was “halfway there” because she was already 13 years old.
On the 11th, Dad was buried at National Cemetery near Bakersfield. He got to touch the casket and say one last goodbye.
At this point, we don’t know how much he’ll remember as time goes on. We’re talking with him about the good memories and my wife and he will be putting together a memory book about Grandpa.
But, as much as we wish we could have delayed his first encounter with mortality, the conversation is ongoing.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.