In my post “The end” I mentioned: I had to tell the girls. I think I will save that for another post.
There is a great deal from this time, from the last 4 months that is turning blurry. Including June 11th. But one thing that is not blurry, and I can’t imagine it ever will be, is A’s reaction. The way her face contracted, the sound of her voice screeching, “Daddy died?!?!?!”
I came downstairs the second time, after getting the girls down for breakfast, then lying back down. I was exhausted. Exhausted in every single, possible way. And D was still sleeping, so I lay back down.
When I came downstairs again, there were definitely people there. My sister, my sister-in-law, my father-in-law, my niece. My brother-in-law and nephew too, but I knew they were asleep in the basement. I knew my mom and my brother were en route. They had to be told to come here – to my house – not to go to the hospital.
I felt a sense of urgency. Who feels a sense of urgency to tell a 4 and almost-6 year old their dad is dead?
I did. Maybe in order to control the message? Maybe because I knew I had to tell them before I updated caringbridge, shared it with the world? (Although neither can read or has access to the internet.) Maybe because I knew it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever do, and I needed to do it, so let’s rip off the bandaid. Who knows? But I felt a sense of urgency, and I remember communicating to my sister and sister-in-law that I was going to do it now and seeing a mixture of surprise, alarm, and maybe fear in their eyes. And in my sister’s eyes: a fierce stealing herself to be whatever would be needed.
The girls were in the playroom, so I went in. The other grown-ups swarmed in. I know D was there too, but I don’t remember who had him. I told the girls I needed to talk to them. They stopped what they were doing and we sat on D’s puzzle-piece play mat. R got in my lap. Chief (my father-in-law) got on the floor, and A got in his lap.
I asked if A remembered what I said the night before about what the Doctor’s told me for the first time yesterday. I said what I wanted to talk to them about was why I had to go back up and lay down… why I was so very tired this morning. Last night, Chief and I got a call and we had to go back to the hospital in the middle of the night… Daddy fought so hard, but the disease and the infection was too much. Chief and I were with him. We held his hand. And Daddy died.
A’s response. R, I think, at the moment, responded to A’s response. How could she not? R is my emotional child. She FEELS her way through life. She burst into tears too, but I’m not even sure she immediately knew why… other than her sister’s crying was so alarming. So raw. So out of character. And she must have felt everyone else’s response, the mood in the room.
The piercing whaling. And I cried too. More silently, but the tears streamed down my face. I pulled every ounce of strength I possibly could and explained that yes, Daddy died. He won’t be able to come home now, but he lives in our hearts now. He loved us so very much, each of us. We loved him so much. So very much. He will always live in our hearts. A’s face. Her voice, “Daddy died?!!?!?” Her anguish in understanding. It will be forever on my heart.
In the moment, I felt a panic from everyone there. Who knows how to handle that situation? No one. No one should ever have to handle it. Telling a 4 and 5 year old this news. But I immediately felt that I was in charge. The other adults were looking to me, even if I was their baby sister or their daughter-in-law, I was the mother of these two whaling children. I couldn’t “fix” it, but it was my call how to “handle” it. I felt that so profoundly in that moment, and so many moments since…I am in charge. I tried to reassure. I talked about how daddy was in our hearts, but yes. Daddy died. It was so very sad. I was so very sad too. We love him, we will remember him. We will hold him in our hearts.
I have subsequently read a pamphlet someone gave me “talking to Children about a loved one’s death”… of course its all about talking about a grandparent, as that’s most children’s first experience with death. Not my children. All of their grandparents are still alive. The pamphlet says to specifically use “died” rather than “passed away” or “gone to sleep” because these terms are confusing to children. You need to be direct with them to help them understand. No one had to tell me that. All I could think while doing it was “I have no idea what I am doing”…”I have no training in how to do this… in how to deliver the worst news of their young lives”…”How do I do this without completely screwing them up?” But no one had to tell me to say Daddy died. No other term was accurate. He did not “pass away” as people love to say to try to make it sound less harsh. It is harsh. He died.
I remember R popping up very quickly with an urgency to tell people, to tell his friends. I told the girls we would have a big party, we would invite everyone to come and celebrate Daddy’s life. Because Daddy was awesome. He was amazing. And he deserves to be celebrated. I struggled that day, and I struggle now – between the past and present tense. R ran to their hand-me-down pottery barn play table that just 2 months before she had been writing out invites to her 4th birthday party, and wanted to write invites for Daddy’s friends to come to his party. We had to tell people. People had to know. I told her I would tell them. Not 15 minutes later she approached her grandfather and said “Chief-y, are you sad because your son died?” with sincerity and compassion. I honestly don’t know how he maintained any composure at all as he tried to answer his 4-year-old granddaughter’s question. Knowing she just lost her father, knowing she had no idea yet, really, what that truly meant.
When their uncle and cousin came upstairs later, the girls basically SHOUTED at them, “Daddy died.” It was cringe-worthy. But what could you do? It was now their news to share. Their pain to bear. Who knows how to process it – at any age, let alone theirs?
In the afternoon, when I thought the girls were having quiet time, resting… I asked my father-in-law to put up Tim’s hammock. He did, and I snuck outside with the dog… and got this pic. It was summer. It was hot. But cool enough inside in the A/C for pants…
Before I knew it, I had company…
That’s my brave face.
You can see in our eyes the tears we shed. The pain. But maybe hope too? Certainly, our own survival. For better or worse. Likely the most blatantly unattractive photo of me I’ve every willingly shared.
I posted this photo to Tim’s wall on Facebook with these words:
Tim, I miss you so much. Words can never describe it. Today I asked your dad to set up your hammock and I went out and sat in it, remembered fondly that Sunday night we laid out there together after the kids were in bed and talked about the future. Of course, I cried.
Before I knew it, I had company. First, Annabelle, we shared our memories of you, each taking turns “it’s a pattern” then Rosie came and joined. She remembered naps in the hammock with you. They wanted to plan what we will do to celebrate your birthday next year. In many ways, I hate that we could not say goodbye. But I am grateful you never had to know you’d be leaving us, because knowing the pain we’d experience to lose you…it would have crushed you. You were my best friend, soulmate, and the best dad imaginable. I know you are always with us. Even if not the way I want. I love you. Sleep well.
Later that day, A started shouting in the den during a show, in front of her aunts, uncle, cousins. “Daddy is NOT in my heart! Daddy is gone! He is not in my heart, he isn’t anywhere, he’s gone.” I felt paralyzed with how to address that, especially in front of others, who were also of course profoundly uncomfortable. Then, at night, alone with me brushing teeth before bed she got upset. “Mommy, of course daddy is in my heart! I love him! Why did I say that he’s not? He’s in my heart. Of course he is! Why did I say that?” I told her it was ok, she was simply confused. It was terribly confusing.
Heading up to bed, R looked at me and said “Mommy! You didn’t go to the hospital today!?” Breath catch. I had to explain again. “Well yes, R, I didn’t go to the hospital today. [Like I have each day for the last 26 days of your life.] I had been going to the hospital to visit daddy. Because Daddy died, he is no longer there.” Honestly, at that point, it was a weird day for ME to not have spent it at the hospital. It was weird for me that I didn’t have to. It was weird for me that he wasn’t there.
A lot of things I have now read talk about children’s difficulty in understanding the permanence of death. Other than that one moment, one question from R about me not going to the hospital on Sunday, June 11th, my brilliant daughters seemed to very quickly (or immediately) grasp that. Grasp the permanence of death. They have struggled, battled, been challenged, but in some ways, they seemed to traverse through all stages of grief at light speed in that one day from morning to bed time. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – it was amazing to watch. Amazing, heart-breaking, awe-inspiring. Those stages are not linear. They will live with that grief their entire lives, I know. And I know that for now, I am in charge – of helping them with it day to day, at consulting and contacting the right resources, at talking about it with D when he’s ready, at steering the message, at supporting, backing away, holding, loving, bearing witness to the pain.
I may be in charge. But I am following their lead. I am learning, every day, from them. Without a doubt, he would be/ is so very proud of them.
One thought on “Telling the girls”
I read your posts and it still takes my own breath away (remind me to not read any while I’m at work again). I know you do this for yourself and your kids, and I can only imagine how grateful they will be later to help gain an understanding of what happened. You are so right that grief is an amazingly cyclical thing. I know you have a wonderful support system and hope that you are able to take some time to breathe, to cry, to process, and take care of yourself. Thinking of you often!
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