One moment my daughter is chatting and playing with her grandad, the next he’s been taken by ambulance to the hospital and never returns. Dealing with the death of a close family member is tough as a grown up but over the Easter break I’ve had the task of getting my three-year-old daughter to take on board what’s happened.
My recent blogging hiatus was not planned. In fact most of the Easter holidays were entirely ad libbed, being blindsided by a sudden family bereavement. It was just after lunch as our train pulled into the station on the edge of the Lake District. My parents collected Tilly and me as planned and took us back to the family home. My dad overcame arthritic joints to play with Tilly on the floor and had just finished giving her a wonderful cuddle in his favourite chair when it happened. My dad lost consciousness suddenly and despite the best efforts of paramedics and the local hospital he couldn’t be revived.
It came as an incredible shock. I have to admit that I’ve lived my life taking certain things for granted, that some people will always be around. That is until they’re not and you find yourself wrong-footed and bereft. Under normal circumstances the grief could easily become all encompassing but when you’ve got a small child to look after, this simply isn’t an option. At a time when there’s a whirlwind of strange activity going on around them they need you more than ever.
A house full of paramedics can’t be ignored but bedtime has to go on as usual too. Initially it was a case of telling Tilly what we knew, that grandad had been taken to hospital. Having visited hospital with a minor injury a while ago and understanding doctors and patients it’s something she’s able to relate to in some way.
Late that night the news comes in that we feared. My dad, Tilly’s grandad has died. Reality strikes home but partially out of our own grief and to help her manage the flood of visitors that followed, we decided to hold off telling Tilly what had happened. She was curious to know why the house was so busy but it was explained that it was all to help grandma as grandad wasn’t there.
Although Tilly only partially understood what was going on, her love was wonderfully unconditional. As my mum put her to bed the next night and felt upset Tilly reassured her by saying “don’t worry grandma: grandad’s only in hospital. He’ll be home soon.” Although we knew it wasn’t true, it was nevertheless hugely comforting.
After a few days we tried to introduce her to what had actually happened. One website recommended explaining it as someone’s body having stopped working and to avoid explaining it as someone having fallen asleep in order to avoid potentially fearful associations with normal activities. Although listening, she didn’t respond to any of these explanations, so we weren’t sure what she actually understood or felt.
One thing that was clear was just how attuned Tilly was to the feelings of others. If she heard my voice waver, as it did often in the first couple of weeks, she’d look at me straight in the eyes with what seemed to be her own emotional concern before giving me a huge hug around my neck. It must be unsettling to see grown ups upset so I always explained that daddy or grandma were feeling sad as we were missing grandad as he was my daddy and grandma’s husband.
Touchingly, Tilly did really try hard to make grandma happy, although at another weepy bedtime she did tell my mum “I’ve tried really hard to make you happy, grandma, but you’re still sad.” Tilly was reassured that she was being a big help but that grandma was feeling very sad because grandad wasn’t there.
A few days later I showed her some family photos, one with my dad and his dad who died twenty years ago. When Tilly asked about her great-grandad, I explained that people aren’t around forever at which point she volunteered the idea that “they died”. I knew from talking about dinosaurs that she had an idea about things dying out and from squashed insects that she understood something being broken as being dead but actually it seems she’s got a better grasp of it than we thought.
Ideas of life and death must be incredibly difficult to grasp when you’re three years old. Their understanding of many things is fairly rudimentary so grappling with concepts of existence are going to pose a challenge. Many grown-ups avoid facing the harsh realities of mortality so we can only expect so much of very young children.
Tilly didn’t mention grandad again after we returned home after the funeral. That was, until today, when finally we had something of a breakthough. Out of nowhere Tilly suddenly said to me: “Your daddy died. You are happy now but you were sad at grandma’s.” Clearly she has been thinking about it all these days as we’d suspected and perhaps has been worrying having seen me upset.
Well, for a three year old Tilly is remarkably astute and it’s comforting to know that she’s get a pretty good grasp of the situation. Time will tell whether more questions come to the fore but for now we’ll carry on with her usual routine and make sure she has plenty to remember grandad by.