The other day, Charlie spontaneously and innocently asked me a question. And suddenly, the moment I have dreaded since becoming a parent was beginning to unravel. It’s happening, don’t say the wrong thing.
“Mommy, who is that guy?” He asked as he pointed to a candle I had made for my wedding, my father’s picture printed under the words ‘In Loving Memory.’ My heart was pounding.
“Charlie, that’s your Grampy,” I said.
“Yeah, Nanny and Gram-PIE!” He confirmed.
“No, buddy. That’s a different Grampy. He’s my daddy. He’s not around anymore. But if he were, you would have had 3 Grampies!”
“That’s you daddy?”
“Yep buddy, that’s my daddy.”
And it was over. He was off onto the next thing – probably a toy or a game or terrorizing one of the dogs.
I’ve replayed it in my head a million times. I even took a picture to remember it. Because for as long as I’ve been a parent, I have feared the day that I would have to talk about the death of my own. After 23 years you might think it would be easier, but it just isn’t.
I’ve not really known a life without death. Everyone grieves differently. But I think when you experience a death out of natural order, it becomes a part of who you are. It’s like being reborn into an alternate life, a life with a significant piece deleted. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing – you learn to overcome, triumph, do things in spite of. But in other ways, it is hard.
You carry with you the raw reality of mortality in a way that someone who hasn’t experienced it yet cannot know. We will all die. We can’t avoid it. We know this. But I still have mini-panic attacks thinking about how my kids might continue to exist on this earth at some point without me. I mean, I can only hope that is the progression of our lives. It is the natural order. But it pains me to think that I might miss a single thing.
How do we talk about these things? From my experience, openly and honestly. My three-year-old does not have the capacity for a thorough discussion on death and the afterlife. But he will ask questions; this topic will resurface. And each time it does, I may give him a little more information. I will let him feel whatever feelings he has. I will answer questions honestly and without fear, hopefully in a way that he can comprehend at the time.
I know that if we don’t talk about it, his first personal experience with it will be terrifying. I know that if we sweep it under a rug, it will come back haunt us. And I know that ignoring it will do absolutely nothing to keep it at bay.
I’m not an expert. I’m just a person with an experience who likes to write about it because it makes her feel better. I don’t know if I handled this situation appropriately… I will probably continue to replay it in my mind, over and over. But maybe the next time, I’ll find myself a little more prepared. And I will lay the foundation to help my children brace themselves for whatever will come in the future. And, little by little, perhaps it will help me to heal old wounds too.