One evening my three year old daughter came out after I had put her to bed to ask me “Why do you have a Dad and I don’t?”
I was floored.
It was a simple and valid question. I did not have a simple and easy answer.
I responded by giving her a cuddle. I said that it was just how it was. Life can be unfair. That I was sad and angry that brain cancer had caused Daddy to die. That he had wanted nothing more than to live and be there for her. I understood that she was also sad and angry but there was nothing we could do to make him come back and be alive again. I reminded her of all the people who loved her. We talked about some of the fun moments that we had had together that day. Then, I gently guided her back to bed.
She was comforted in part but I knew that there would be more questions to come. There were many. Night and day. Week after week. Some made sense. Some didn’t. Some were repetitive trying to understand how and why her Daddy had died and what happened at the funeral. Each time from a slightly different angle. Some of the more memorable questions included:
- Why didn’t the doctors make Daddy better?
- What causes cancer? What is cancer?
- Was the cancer caused when Daddy bumped his head under the house?
- Is he still driving around in that big black car that took him away sleeping after the funeral? When will he come back?
- Where is Daddy now? What are ashes? How are ashes made?
- Why isn’t Daddy real?
- Do you think when Daddy died he came back to life somewhere else?
Every question was excruciating. I wanted to shut out the memories, our loss and pain. My heart winced and shuddered. I was disillusioned with concepts of god or heaven and had disengaged from Catholicism decades earlier so I was reluctant to share these concepts with my daughter. She sensed I was struggling and unsure in what I believed.
My counsellor provided invaluable support and guidance as I stumbled through the questions week after week. She highlighted that it was positive that my daughter was verbalising difficult and poignant questions, prompting conversations which my four year old son could also listen to. Every question was an opportunity to reflect and consider how best to support myself and my kids.
I identified and implemented five areas of action.
- It was important to place my husband’s ashes at rest as soon as possible so that there was a physical place that my children could refer and relate to. See this blog post for the story of how we chose the place of the rest and the ceremony that we conducted.
- I engaged a play therapist to support my daughter and I. Before she met with my daughter the play therapist insisted on a two hour session with me first. (One of the key factors in supporting a child is supporting the parent.) She validated everything that I was already doing to support my children, especially maintaining a routine to ensure that both kids felt safe and a sense of control. We discussed many children’s story books that were helpful to provide empathy and simple ideas of death. She confirmed that my daughter’s separation anxiety was not unusual given the loss of her father. She explained that children between 3 and 6 years of age find it hard to understand concepts of life versus death. Hence they can be very emotional and will ask many questions over and over again. We arranged eight play therapy sessions for my daughter to express her emotions in a safe supportive play therapy environment – another outlet separate to home and daycare.
- I kept my daughter’s daycare teachers regularly informed about everything that we were doing and experiencing at home. My daughter established a very close connection with one special teacher who was wise, compassionate and experienced. I felt like we had discovered a guardian angel! She was sensitive to my daughter’s separation anxiety and anything that triggered grief each day. One day the class read the book “There was an old woman who swallowed a fly”. In the week following, my daughter was very upset and confused trying to make sense of the rhyme. Her teacher recognised that my daughter’s emotions provided an opportunity to discuss the death of her father and her loss. My daughter ended up standing up in front of classmates and sharing her story. She was noticeably calmer and more peaceful that night. She had been listened to and loved by her peers and teacher.
- I needed to explore further what I believed about life after death and spiritual concepts. I read many books finding solace and comfort. The more I read, the less wounded and calmer I felt. Each insight gleaned felt like the careful placement of bricks and mortar as I repaired and strengthened some of the cracks in my foundations.
- The constructs that I discovered in my spiritual search were too complex and esoteric to share with my young children. I was unsure what to explain to my daughter about where the rest of Daddy was besides his ashes. Then, I realised that loosely using the widely referenced terms god and heaven was ok for the time being as long as I also emphasised some facts of which I had no doubt.
- The love of our daughter for her father and vice versa is eternal. He will always live on our hearts and in the hearts of everyone who loved him.
- We saw many rainbows around the time of her father’s death and at special dates following. We can take comfort and connection from each one of them.
Following all of the above, both my daughter and I were significantly lighter and happier.
Six months later, when we were at a Christmas barbecue at my cousin’s place, my daughter came to the dinner table with this picture. She had been drawing with some of the kids. I was moved.
It is a drawing of a rainbow. At the top is God. Underneath is her father. At the bottom is the three of us smiling, my son, my daughter and I.
It is one of my most treasured pictures.
My daughter is now 8. She still regularly shares her grief when it arises. Her questions have evolved and matured. I am thankful that she is still comfortable approaching me and sharing everything with me. Being present, patient and responsive in those first few years was imperative.