For most children, the concept of death is introduced with the death of a pet, an elderly grandparent or perhaps a poor raccoon spotted on the side of the road.
For my almost 2-year old, it was when he asked for his dad and I had to say, “Daddy died. We can’t see him anymore.”
When my husband of only a year was given 1-2 years to live along with his Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis, we decided that our dream of a family would not be crushed like our dream of growing old together. So we got the IVF ball rolling and we soon welcomed a baby boy into our lives.
Deep down, I knew that one day I would be a single mother to this little miracle, and that I’d have to explain to him what happened to his dad.
And so, during bedtime one night, as I held my son in my lap and we settled in for Llama Llama Red Pajama it started. He asked “Da-Da?”
“Daddy died. We can’t see him anymore.”
I knew he had no idea what this meant, and so I tried, as best as I could, to explain.
“Daddy is in Heaven with God now. Daddy was really sick, and didn’t feel well, and only God could make him feel better.”
My face was wet with tears.
“Da-Da ning ning?” This was his way of asking if we could call him, since he’d grown accustomed to doing so during my husband’s hospital stays leading up to his death.
At this point Llama Llama was wet with tears, too.
“No sweetheart, we can’t call him. We can’t see or talk with him anymore. But he’s watching us and is smiling at us from Heaven.”
Over time he’d repeat these phrases back to me—“Daddy. Heaven. God. Feel better. Happy.”
Through tears I’d muster, “Yes sweetie, Daddy feels so much better now and is so happy. God is taking care of him. He wishes he could be with us, but he can’t.”
These discussions have somewhat gone away, replaced by my son’s keen observations of when I’m sad. “Mommy miss Daddy. Be happy!” he’ll say.
We talk about Daddy all the time, making sure he is a part of our daily lives.
When he plays with his soccer ball, I tell him how Daddy played soccer back in the day and he’d be so proud of his skills. When we listen to music, I tell him how much his dad loved Pearl Jam and Widespread Panic, and how Daddy would pick him up and they’d jam to his tunes on the record player that now collects dust in our family room. When we roughhouse on the couch or have tickle fights, I tell him how he loved when Daddy would do the same and the two of them would laugh and laugh. So much so that I’d worry he only giggled for his Dad.
I know he’ll have more questions as he gets older, and I’ll have to explain to him what cancer is. Maybe, even, I’ll have to explain what an intestinal blockage is and how that lead to his death. What chemo, clinical trials, ports and a PleurX drain are. How we got second, third, and even fourth opinions at various forks in the road of treatment to ensure we were doing all we could. How we chose two clinical trials 500 miles away in New York City that meant bi-weekly and then weekly trips for infusions and checkups.
In the end, nothing we did was enough, and so I fall back on my belief that only God could make him feel better and I hope our children can understand that and find comfort in it.
I was seven weeks pregnant when my husband took his last breath, his hands in mine, and so I know I’ll begin to have this conversation at some point with our other son. Will it be easier to explain to him why he doesn’t have a dad? Perhaps. Only the explanation since it’s been rehearsed. But he will never have a single picture with his Dad, no speck of a memory of him exists in his mind. He’ll only know his dad through stories and pictures of a time when it was just the three of us. Will he feel left out? Jealous of his brother? Angry he was conceived when we knew he’d likely never meet his dad?
I’ll have to tackle those as they come. For now though, as I still work with my own grief, I’ll “enjoy” the one-dimensional understanding that my boys will have of their dad’s sickness and death. I’ll focus on fulfilling my promise to my husband that his children will grow up knowing what a wonderful man he was and that he loved them so much. That’s all a widowed mother can do.