This year has been a year of extremes for my family. The high point was our wee girl arriving in January. The worst point was my father losing his battle with cancer after a rough few months.
I have three kids, all of whom had to see their grandfather's health decline and eventually fail him. But you know, kids are incredible. Apart from a few questions and misunderstandings, they just take it in their stride, accept that death is part of life, and move on.
My baby was too young to understand what was happening (but I am not naive enough to think that she didn't pick up a few vibes). My middle child was almost two - too young to ask questions but old enough to understand that something serious was happening. My three-year-old (now four) - well, he is a chatterbox and wanted to know everything.
His kindy teacher lent me a couple of books for him to read. My favourite was Old Elephant. The first time I read it I burst into tears and blubbed my way through - which was a good starting point for a discussion with him.
In the last few months before my father's death, our three-year-old's questions included:
"What are all those pipes for?" (He now has a pretty good understanding of how a catheter works, along with various other bits of hospital machinery thanks to my mother's honest and detailed answers!)
"Why does he need that to help him wee?" Answer - because something is blocking his wees. "Oh - like a sandwich or something?" Three-year-old logic at its best!
"Can I please have a bed with buttons like Opa? Is he asleep in that box? Can he have a drink? Is Opa just a little bit dead or all the way dead? Because I want to fly kites and aeroplanes with him."
And the hardest to answer: "Why does Opa have cancer when he doesn't smoke, but Grandad smokes cigarettes? Will he get cancer too?" Every now and then that question still comes up (if anyone knows the answer, please, please, please share).
I think having children helped (and is still helping) me get through a very tough time. No matter what is happening, as a parent you still have to get up, make breakfast, smile and laugh with your kids. Life carries on, because it has to. And though it was hard, it has to have been better for me than curling up into a ball under my duvet with a glass bottle of something and a block of chocolate and not moving all day. Which is what I actually felt like doing quite a large proportion of the time.
A beautiful memory for me is seeing my baby, only a month old at the time, sleeping at one end of the bed in hospital. She was at the beginning of her life, and the man sleeping at the other end of the bed was near the end, yet they both had the same peaceful expression. That moment will stay with me forever.
Most of us will have to face the death of a family member at some stage, and most will have children when this happens. For us, what helped was Old Elephant, having kids and my husband to cuddle, and not sheltering my kids from the situation. Children are amazing how they can accept death as part of life without overcomplicating things (apart from a few curly questions).
Any tips or words of advice for those still to go through this awful time? How to help children understand? How to get through it when you don't have the option of curling up into a ball under your duvet forever?
It's a tough old time, and the more tools we have to handle it, the better.
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