In April 2009, my 34-year old husband Martin suffered a fatal heart attack. No family history, no previous symptoms. He was away with our three-year-old son Alex for a father-son bonding weekend, while I had stayed at home with our 11 months old daughter Olivia. They were due to come back the day he died. I had spoken to him at 9:30 in the morning, and everything seemed fine; by lunchtime he was dead, and I was a young widow with two grieving children under four.
I was in total shock. Felt numb.
To make matters worse: they were a four-hour-drive away.
All I wanted was to be with my little boy.
My father-in-law drove. Nobody said a word. We arrived, and I saw Alex straight away. He looked happy and calm. His own daddy had been a police officer, so I think that helped.
He saw me and shouted “Oi! No girls allowed!” (it had been a ‘boys’ weekend’); instantly followed by “Is Daddy coming back in a minute?”…
I had spent the long drive working out what I wanted to say. I knew I had to be honest. I knew I had to use age-appropriate language. But it still took all of my mental strength to actually get the words out. I knelt down in front of Alex, gently held his head against my chest, and asked him if he could hear that noise. “I can hear a funny ‘bump, bump, bump’,” he said. “That’s right,” I answered. “That’s a heart. Everybody has got one, and when it stops beating, the body doesn’t work any more. A person whose heart has stopped beating can’t walk or talk anymore, and they die.” I explained that this is what had happened to daddy – that his heart had stopped beating. That he had died and that he could never come back…
While this honesty might sound shocking and cruel to you, it is important to remember that children think very literally, and, as tempting as it may be to try and ‘make it sound a bit nicer’ by saying something like ‘he has gone to sleep’ or ‘he has gone to a better place’, using phrases like this can trigger panic attacks, guilt and abandonment anxiety. “Will I die if I go to sleep?”, “Will Mummy die if she goes to sleep?”, “What did I do to make Daddy want to go away?”, “Why am I not allowed to go see him?”, “Is it my fault that he is not here?”… the list goes on.
Many people’s preconception is that (very young) children will simply ‘get over it’. That they’ll ‘just forget’. This is not true.
What IS true is that they need our help to understand. They will ask lots of questions, and they will ask them again and again. But they are not trying to annoy you, or make you feel worse. Please remember that to a three-year-old, there is no difference between asking “How does an aeroplane stay in the air?”, “Do spaghetti grow on trees?”, or “What happened to Daddy’s body?” – they are just trying to make sense of what you already understand. The worst has happened in their lives; what they need now is someone they can trust.
In the days following Martin’s death, Alex asked many questions. For example “Will you have to die mummy?” (“Yes, everybody has to die, but most people don’t die until they are very old.”), “Who will look after me when you die?” (I listed a number of people, but he was so scared that they might also die, that we sat down and wrote a list of all the people we love who could look after Alex and Olivia in case I died.) and “How many more sleeps until I have to die?” (“Nobody really knows, but most people have a loooooooot of sleeps before they die.”).
Over time, the questions changed. But they kept on coming. Child grief is often described as ‘jumping in and out of puddles’. Grieving children can be intensely sad one second, then happily playing with their toys the next. They will undergo several developmental stages, throughout which their understanding will change and grow. Very young children for example still think that death is reversible, and when they finally comprehend that their loved one really is NEVER coming back, they will grieve again.
I passionately believe that the ONLY way we can protect children is with – the best version of – the truth.
I promised mine that they could always ask me anything, no matter how awkward or embarrassing, and that they would always get an honest answer. And I have kept my promise.