I wrote this three years ago after I’d put two-year-old Isla to bed….it’s brought me back to how I talk to my children about death and how honest I have become:
“I knew the day would always come, the day that Isla would clock that her little experience of normal was slightly skewed from the normal around her. The big where’s my daddy question was always going to come. So putting her to bed last week she shut the blinds with me and turned to ask with a smile, “where’s Daddy?”. Tweely, I replied “oh honey he’s somewhere out there, I hope,”. She then pointed at a series of rooftops out the window, asking, as her finger moved along the window pane, “Is that his house? Is that his house? Is that his house?”. I told her I didn’t think daddy lived in a house and certainly he was not in any of those in the street below ours. As every two year old does she moved seamlessly on to something completely unrelated while my heart broke for her that she’s no hope of ever having even a remote memory of daddy doing bedtime and my heart broke once again for Col that he’s not had the chance to properly meet this gorgeous girl of his that has inherited his charmisma and ability to charm every person she meets.
I will never know enough about talking about death to my children but I have done my research. I’ve read articles, books and more books on it. I’ve listened to and taken part in numerous discussions on it. Dead parents and the effects of it on kids, namely mine, could be my specialist subject on Mastermind. But above all the gathered knowledge I have my instinct. And no one else can tell me what my gut knows. And that’s it. Don’t cross me on it.
I do get asked by others what to do and aside from telling them to follow their own gut I have boiled it down to a few pointers but no one can tell you how to do it. Always remember that. Take advice but follow your instinct.
My ‘somewhere out there’ answer to Isla was too airy fairy. I do believe the energy of the dead kind of lives alongside us but I’m not sure how so am not up for a theological discussion/challenge on it. I tend to think the dead are with us in the energy of everything, particularly sunsets because they are super pretty and make me smile. The one thing the dead are certainly not doing is sitting on a cloud in the sky. I think in the very early days, myself or someone told Evie, Daddy was in the sky (in her version of Twinkle,Twinkle used to go ‘up above the world so high, like a Daddy In The Sky’), and it was simply confusing. When she was three we went on a flight and she got really upset because she couldn’t see Colin floating past our plane window. Dear God – can you imagine?
Anyway, to be told the person they miss is somewhere else physical simply hurts them because why would that person choose that other place over being with them? So I read my stuff from the amazing charity that is Winston’s Wish and stopped being a woose. I got used to saying – Daddy is dead. Daddy died. No daddy has not gone to sleep (why do people say that? I don’t think my kids would have ever gone to bed again if dying and sleep were so easily confused). No daddy has ‘passed on’ or ‘passed away’. What? What’s he passed on? His go at snap, his genes, his turn at having a life? Nope he is dead, girls. I gently tell them his heart stopped and nobody could fix it even though they tried.
The grief experts suggest pointing out dead bugs and animals so I did that a few times but it felt a little odd to say, ‘Look dead ladybird. It’s dead like daddy.’ Literal can be taken too far by a three year old who might worry daddy has been left outside, on his back, to just be…just be dead. Just like the bugs. But I understand the essence of it. They need to understand the finality of death. There are no returns or comebacks in real life. Death is a full stop.
Let Them See your Grief
‘Don’t let them seem see you upset’ I was told. Oh, why not? They get sad about not having Daddy around too so if they see me cry it out and then end up laughing about something at the end of the outpouring then they get to see grief is ok, grief is normal. Switching off your emotions is not normal. Hiding them is not honest. Sometimes the three of us have a good cry together and other times we hug the weeper and try to make them laugh about something random like daddy having really hairy shoulders and mummy punching him in the face while de-hairifying them with Veet wax strips during his holiday prep.
Keep Your Dead Person Alive
That’s another thing, we talk about him a lot so those stories feel like their own memories, that they experienced too. I’ve had people tell me that I talk about Colin too much to the girls and how can we all move on if we always look backwards. We aren’t always looking backwards. Our conversations are about keeping him in our present so he will always be part of our future. If it makes people uncomfortable, well, so bit it. I’m proud when a new person in our lives can be told by a happy Evie that her Daddy made mummy cry when he pretended to be a zombie one night, and he simply wouldn’t stop. She should have stories about her daddy, everyone else in her world does.
Normalise The Situation
The adult world may stop in a gasp of horror (me included) when a stranger, young and old, asks about the girls’ daddy. They don’t, they just take it their stride. They’ve known nothing else. This Colin-less world is their normal. So when a child at school/nursery/shop assistant/bus driver/kind old ladies in the street asks about their daddy they don’t collapse into a heap but they answer as if it’s the most normal thing in the world to say: “My daddy died but he was very funny and he called me the Monkey Child/The Chicken” or some other ‘he’s dead’ with a random little fact combination that links him and them tagged on. Children tend to take it in their stride or, if I am there, ask me if it’s actually true. And then they move on without drama and they may ask for a biscuit or if Isla can do a proper cartwheel. Adults tend to look all uncomfortable and be at a loss for words other than a mumbled ‘I’m so sorry’. The strange thing about that (and it’s something I know other widowed friends do too) is I want to make it all OK for the now squirming adult so will say something inane with a big smile to make them feel better: “Oh it’s ok. We’re fine. We’re totally tickety boo with the dead dad thing. You’re free to return to your world where these awkward things do not exist”.
Tell Them What Happens to the Dead
It’s back to the literal point. Evie asked recently what happens to dead people’s bodies. She’d grasped the fact that dead is dead and there’s no coming back, no matter how hard you wish it or how often you put it on your list for Santa. But she couldn’t really get what happened after his heart stopped. My online widow friend Elke Thompson (previously Barber) has written two very helpful books. First, there is ‘Is Daddy Coming Back in a minute?’ and the second is ‘What Happened to Daddy’s Body?‘ She wrote these with her son after her husband died suddenly, his heart stopped, out of the blue, like Col’s. I now explain to the girls that sometimes people are buried like Grandad and sometimes they are cremated like Daddy. They didn’t flinch when I talked through the process of both and instead debated their own choices for themselves. Death is not a taboo subject for these two amazing girls. They are also pretty proud of themselves that they have now climbed to the top of the mountain where we scattered Daddy’s ashes from and want to keep going back up, ‘on special days and just any days without rain’, Evie’s words.
Don’t Try To Go It Alone
It’s a nightmare you never want to face. A world you didn’t want to know about. But thank God for all those who have trod this path before because now there is help out there for those who need to talk death with kids, and it’s good, sound help. Here’s just a few I’ve contacted and used in our journey so far.