My mum died eighteen months ago. She was the centre of my children’s universe. They adored her. And she them. Perhaps that was the reason she was never able to be honest with them when she was dying.
Instead, she chose to pretend that everything would be fine. She promised my daughter she’d be around until she turned ten. That she’d take her to Disneyland like they’d always talked about, and things would be fine. So when they weren’t fine, when she went and died, it left a pretty pissed off seven-year-old who decided her Nanna had lied to her.
In Mum’s well-meaning attempts at protecting my child from the ugliness of death, all she’d done was give her false hope. And false hope might be fine for the person dying because it means they don’t have to have that horrible conversation, but it leaves a hell of a mess afterwards.
When Mum was moved into a palliative care ward, forcing all of us to stop pretending all would be fine, she decided it would be better for my children not to see her in hospital. She told me she didn’t want them going through the pain of seeing her so sick. I’m not sure that it was actually about them. Maybe she thought it was, but I think it was actually just too painful for her to see two people she loved so much, knowing she wouldn’t see them for much longer.
It meant though that they went from seeing her well enough to be walking and talking and laughing with them at home, to being days away from death. And the only reason they saw her at all in hospital towards the end was because I ignored her wishes and took them in. They knew they were saying goodbye and she was furious with me. I’ll never forget that steely glare she shot me, when she saw them in the doorway with all the crafted presents they’d made. I know it hurt her to see them that last time. My daughter sporting a new, very short haircut, and my son grabbing her hands. But for them, had they not at least seen her just that once, as sick as she was, they may never have understood her death. As it was, they were sort of robbed of the privilege of witnessing the stages of death where you adjust to seeing someone growing sicker. And that’s pretty hard to get your head around when you’re just a kid.
My daughter still grapples with the idea that she was shut out. She doesn’t understand why she wasn’t allowed to sit by her Nanna’s bed day after day like I did. She feels like her Nanna didn’t want her anymore. Surely this is a failure, not of love or death, but of our complete inability as a culture to understand the process of death and to make it accessible to our children, no matter what age.
Watching my daughter grieve was one thing. That’s normal after someone dies. But watching her struggle to understand why Nanna had cut her off to protect her was something different altogether. The intricacies of those decisions are so adult and so difficult to explain to a child. When a child is sick the only people they want around them are the people they love, so it can’t possibly make sense to them that someone they love so much wouldn’t want them near.
At my son’s kindergarten recently one of the chickens in the hatching box died. Instead of whisking it away before any of the children saw its dead body, the teachers decided to leave it there. They involved the kids (all of them four or five years-old) in making death boxes, or coffins. Then they had a ceremony in the garden under the climbing tree. A couple of children wrote things on a little cross and poked it into the ground. Others scattered petals from their favourite flowers. And at the end of the session, when they would usually come together for a book, their teacher showed them a story about the cycle of life. And they talked about death. One little girl explained that everything has to die because we would be too crowded otherwise. Another explained that even books die because the paper gets so old it crumples and falls apart. Another talked very earnestly about how babies can sometimes die, especially if they swallow batteries. And my son talked about being alive and that he too would die one day. Just like Nanna. It was just another conversation to be had. Nothing more. Nothing less. They weren’t embarrassed. Or shy. Or upset. They were just talking.
While I listened, tears in my eyes at their pragmatic and sweet responses, their usual battles to be heard, their hands sticking up urgently as they waited to speak, I was amazed at how articulate they were. How beautifully they expressed what they thought about death. How comfortable they were talking about it. And how much wiser and more insightful than adults they sounded.