A beautiful, funny, glorious, much too young family member is dying of liver cancer. It developed from a case of melanoma that she thought was licked last year (note, make friends with your moles people!). She was given two weeks to live three weeks ago. I guess you could say she’s living on borrowed time. The one kindness is that she’s able to make the most of what time she has left, having taken a trip to the tropics and to the waterpark with her grandchildren. I am in awe of her grace, dignity and strength.
Everyone in the family is struggling to cope with the news, and I’m no different. As difficult as it is to watch all this helplessly from afar, my biggest problem right now is the kidlets. I’ve taken a bit of heat from a few sources about how I handled it.
Basically my attitude is that death is a natural part of life. It’s a sad, heart wrenching, painful, confusing, sometimes tragic inevitability that comes from being alive. Does this make it less traumatic when it happens. No. It is something to be sad about, not hide from or be afraid of.
And that’s what I tried to explain to my kids before we saw her a couple of weeks ago. Essentially I told them that the cancer is going to make her feel really tired and eventually she’ll fall asleep and not wake up. It’s not (please) going to hurt when it happens, she’s not in pain (thanks to the pain management plan, but they don’t need to know that). They seemed satisfied with that. Sprout, with her eyes wise and knowing, nodded gravely and asked about funeral arrangements – that’s her, hiding her sadness with practicality. Elfkin stuck her lip out and pouted, and wanted to know why she couldn’t help. Fighting back tears I explained that we couldn’t help her live, the doctors had done all they could, but they couldn’t fix the cancer anymore. What we could do to help is to visit, and make her laugh and smile and give her good memories before she goes on.
Which we did. We had dinner with most of the family and we got to talk and visit, but not say goodbye. Our girl didn’t want tears, so I hid in the bathroom when I felt them coming on. I held her mother while she wept, hidden away in the kitchen and tried to come up with some words of comfort that didn’t sound facile or trite. I failed miserably. What do you say to a mother who is watching her child die? It’s going to be alright? No, it’s not. Nothing will ever be alright again.
Hopefully I conveyed with touch what I couldn’t find the words to say.
While we ate, my practical Sprout had an epiphany: “Mom, when she’s gone, who is going to take care of her dogs?” That’s my girl, always thinking of those who need help or protection. I explained that her husband and sister would most likely look after them. If not, I was sure another member of the family would look out for them and find them good homes. Elfkin pouted some more and announced: “It’s not fair. She’s too nice!” And she’s right, it’s not fair. She’s so young to learn that fairness rarely plays a role in these things.
We left that night with hugs, kisses and toys for the kids. It was a good night.
Since then I’ve been told I’ve robbed my children of their innocence and that I should have gone into detail about the miracle of life after death. The truth is, I’ve always been honest with my kids, regardless of what they’re asking about, be it sex and love or death and the afterlife, I give them as much age appropriate information as necessary to answer their questions and tell them that my door is always open should they have any more. And I ask them if they have anything they want to talk about regarding a particular subject at random intervals.
As for the religious angle, again, I tend to define myself as agnostic with pagan tendencies so talking about Jesus doesn’t feel comfortable to me. I let my mother handle the Judeo-Christian angle, with editorial guidance from me after the fact. I certainly have faith that we go to a better place when we die, but I don’t KNOW for certain. And no one knows for certain what it’s going to be like – bright light, excellent hunting, harp music? No one has come back to tell us. The whole heaven thing and going to ‘be with Jesus’ when you die, simply is not my belief although it wouldn’t surprise me if he dropped in to the Summerlands for tea from time to time.
At any rate, the kids seem fine with all of this. They’ve had some questions and asked how she was doing, but don’t seem disturbed beyond the expected. Normally I would just shake this off as unfair criticism, but this really rankled me. Am I completely off base? Have I somehow failed my children?