I have not written a blog post for a while. I have not had the will, nor the words. And if I’m honest, I know there is enough doom and gloom around without my maudlin witterings.
But, I was asked last week how I do it. How I handle the grief with children. And how I spoke to my children about my father’s death and indeed, my mother’s decline into dementia. What to say. What to share. What to hide.
A lovely lady grabbed me at the school gate. Her father has received a terminal diagnosis and she is struggling, understandably to come to terms with that and handle the questions her young sons are throwing at her.
For a split second, I admit I was rather pleased as punch. That I was seen as someone who had their shit together. But then of course, the reality that I spend most of every day running from hit like a truck.
He is not just not answering my calls. He is not just busy playing golf or out walking the dogs. He is gone. And he isn’t coming back. Because, the truth is, I do call him sometimes. “Dad” is the second most called number on my car infotainment system. Sometimes I press it by accident, other times I press it and hope like mad that it was all a bloody horrible dream.
He doesn’t answer. In case you were wondering.
So I thought I’d share my advice on death and grief. On answering children’s questions whilst trying to manage your own grief. I don’t know if I did it right. I just did it. I had no choice but to crack on. Somethings I think I got right, others not so.
- Being Honest
The first time I told my kids that Papa was poorly, they asked if he would get better. I told them that I wasn’t sure. That the doctors were hoping they could help, but that there was a chance he wouldn’t get better. Having already lived through their granny “not getting better” perhaps this was not too shocking for them.
Being honest with the kids was important to me. For one, I couldn’t hide my own emotions at times, so I had to explain the tears and the pain. But I also wanted them to understand that even though death and pain is a part of life, how you help that person you love is a defining moment in life. Loving someone means you look after them, even when it’s hard.
It’s not all plain sailing. Mabel told me last week that she believes we should have left Papa to fall asleep and just not wake up. That perhaps then I wouldn’t be so sad.
I calmly explained that being with Papa helped make him less scared. That it was the right thing to do, even if it was hard. And that I am sad some days because I miss him. Not because I watched him die.
She misses him too. That’s something I can’t take away. Instead we talk about him a lot. We laugh at the silly things he’d say or do. We look at pictures and read books he’s give us. We include him in our life. That feels like the right thing to do, though at times it makes me miss his reassuring presence in my life even more.
2. Value Your Time
If you have the luxury of time, even if it’s just a matter of weeks, then this will be the most precious time of your life.
Say the things you never said. Ask the questions you have never thought of asking. Go to the places you have always wanted to visit. Watch the films you want to watch together. Speak about the little things and the big. Laugh about memories together and be honest about how scared you are, but in the same breath make sure they know you’re going to be okay. That this will not take you down. Give them the courage to face what’s coming and know how much they are loved.
Sitting with my father as his amazing, selfless life faded away was the single most difficult thing I have ever done. It is also one of the most precious experiences I know I will ever have. What a privilege it was to be there. To ease his passing. To help make him comfortable. What an honour to be able to tell him how I will miss him forever, but that because of his strength, I will be fine. What a gift to be able to thank him for being mine.
3. Fight for a good death
One of the first things my sister said to me, a few moments after he’d passed away was that as deaths go, this was a good one.
It didn’t mean much at the time. In the thick of the pain. But now, I know what she means.
He was at home.
He was surrounded by people who loved him.
He was peaceful and settled.
As deaths go, it was a nice one. An enviable one.
The mum at the school gates told me her father wants to stay at home, if possible.
“Demand it!” I said, perhaps a little too aggressively. “Push as hard as you can for it. Seek the help you need to make that happen.” I said. “The fact that you can help him have a good death will mean the world to you one day.”
And it is true. I believe everyone deserves an individual ‘good’ death. A death that is crafted for them personally. Surrounded by loved ones. As peaceful as possible. I know this is not always possible, but if there’s a glimmer of a chance then grab on to it and make it work.
It will help you live with what has happened. It will give you strength when it feels you are falling down. It will be a tiny sliver of light in your very darkest of moments.
4. Forgive Yourself
I thought I’d said it all. Asked everything I wanted to know. Shared the feelings I wanted to share. But sometimes, I get a fleeting thought and I think “I’ll ring Dad and ask him!” and I get that sinking feeling. That awful thud in the pit of my stomach that now I will never know the answer to why I was always so vomity as a child. Or what happened to my first violin.
And then there are times when I am out with friends or in a very public place and a word, a joke, a comment brings me to my knees. Not only does this completely destroy any fun that might have been underway, but it is embarrassing for all involved and causes me to flush with embarrassment for days or weeks after at the memory (sorry my lovely girls who have to deal with this!)
These things – these small embarrassing moments, these regrets that wash over you – forgive yourself. You’ve been through enough. You’re still going through enough. This is hard enough without judging yourself too harshly. Difficult, I know, but I think it’s worth saying. Forgive yourself for any indiscretions, emotional outbursts and your imperfectly perfect humanity.
5. Indulge Yourself
Getting through the day without crumpling into a heap on the floor in floods of tears can be a challenge. In order to behave as normal, to function as expected you have to block it out most of the time, pretend everything is okay. That the worst thing you could imagine has not just happened.
But then, every so often I allow myself the indulgence of thinking about it all. Because it does feel indulgent. I remember the days before his death. I remember my mother’s raucous laugh. I remember how excited I would feel to be going home at Christmas, to be enveloped in a house full of love and laughter. I go back there for those precious indulgent moments. I go back to being at the shops with my mother before Christmas, the smells, the sounds, the excitement – the feeling of being completely safe. I remember the moments leading up to Dad’s death. I remember how I felt as I held his hand and how his hand felt in mine. How he smiled when I massaged his swollen feet. How it felt to be curled up in the armchair in the deep dark night, listening to his faint breathing.
Taking myself to those places makes me feel so close to them both. It is like I could just reach out and touch them. It is indulgent and it is painful, but it is also precious. I have to allow myself those moments sparingly, otherwise the other day to day part of life will simply not happen.
I hope my ramblings help someone. I hope that in sharing my grief someone else feels a little less alone in theirs. I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. I don’t know whether I’m coping well, or whether at some point the enormity of what my family has endured will hit hard. I know that taking each day as it comes and lowering my own expectations of me has helped. I know that my children, my family and my friends help me to believe in good. And I know that despite the pain and the sadness, the huge Dad-shaped hole that will be in my heart this Christmas there is a small glimmer of comfort, in that when it comes to my father, I have no regrets. I didn’t want him to die. To leave me. I still need him. I will miss him forever… but if he did have to go, then at least I was there and I have no regrets. That gives me a touch of comfort.
And when you can have an ounce of comfort – hold on to it for dear life. It will keep you afloat when the grief is too wild and too angry to bear and you’re at risk of going under.
For all those who will be missing someone this Christmas – keep strong, keep smiling when you can and forgive yourself your beautiful, fragile and imperfectly perfect humanity.