Children and grieving

Fran Hall

 

We couldn’t have children at Steve’s funeral ceremony.

Covid restrictions on numbers meant that we had to be ruthless in paring down the people allowed to be present, and there were so many whose connections with Steve went back years, we made the judgement call that they had to take precedent over my grandchildren. This was a tough decision for me, as I feel strongly that children should be involved and present at funerals if they want to be, particularly of someone who has been such a strong influence and is loved as much as Steve was by my daughter’s children, but given the number of expletives involved in Steve’s funeral ceremony, it was probably the responsible one to take…

I have six grandchildren, and the three who belong to Grace, my younger daughter, have always been incredibly close to Steve. He has been in their lives since they were born, and to them he is Grandpa Steve. They live just around the corner from here and treat ‘Nana’s house’ just like their own, so they were particularly pleased when Steve and I moved back here full time just before the lockdown was announced. Once ‘bubbles’ were permitted, as a single mum, Grace and the children linked up with us, and normal relations were resumed, with Leo, Albert and Amelia spending as much time here as they could.

Late in the summer, when it was apparent that Steve’s cancer was accelerating, Grace and I took the children for a long walk and told them that Grandpa Steve was going to die because the doctors couldn’t make him better. Aged eight, six and almost three, they processed this information differently, asking a whole load of questions and trying to understand what we were telling them.

Luckily, in 2019, Grace’s beloved family dog Kizzie had died, and the boys in particular had very clear memories of saying goodbye to her on the morning that she had to be taken to the vets, and of then coming here to the house after school where we had laid her body on her bed and surrounded it with flowers from the garden. They had helped to dig the little grave for her and helped us wrap her body and then lower it into the grave, helping us fill it in and then plant a camellia on top of it.

Saying goodbye to Kizzie 2019

 

This experience was absolutely invaluable in helping them process what we were telling them, because they had a complete understanding of the difference between Kizzie alive and Kizzie dead. This gave them the reference they needed to understand what we were telling them would be happening to Steve – although it took a while for Albert to be persuaded that we wouldn’t be able to bury Steve in the garden with Kizzie, it was only when we talked about how much bigger a grave would be needed that he accepted it might be better if we let the gravediggers at the burial ground sort that out.

It was a really hard day, the day that we told them. It felt that we were deliberately taking something precious away from them, like telling them that there was no Father Christmas or Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. Their trusting innocence in the safe world they inhabit was suddenly in jeopardy, one of the hugely important adults that they all love was going to be leaving them, he didn’t want to, but he had no choice, and there was nothing they could do about it. But it was the right time to tell them, and it meant that there were no secrets being hidden from them as the days went by. When we got home that day, I told Steve in front of them that we had been talking about him dying and he told them all that they could ask him anything they wanted to about it. They were more interested in what was for dinner than in having a conversation about his approaching death, but the offer was there and remained there from then on.

This new, strange knowledge was difficult for them to handle at times – when Steve and I told them that we were getting married, Albert was confused. “Why are you marrying Grandpa Steve when he’s going to die?” he asked.  And seeing Steve having bad days when he was in pain and realising that he was losing his strength was hard for them. They wanted him to come on long dog walks and rough and tumble play with them like he used to and were sad that he couldn’t. But we all patiently explained over and again about how the cancer was affecting him and he really wanted to play but just couldn’t anymore the way he used to. I think that they were adapting really well to him gradually becoming less physically robust and were processing their understanding that he was going to die absolutely brilliantly. But then everything accelerated with frightening speed when he contracted Covid and we all had to isolate. They didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to him, something we would, in an ideal world, have made sure had happened. Instead, Grace encouraged them to write letters and draw pictures for him.

When Steve was taken to hospital, I knew he wouldn’t be coming home. I didn’t think any of us would ever see him again, but when I was called to the hospital the first time, I was able to take the letters and drawings with me and give them to him. He had rallied a little from the point earlier in the day when the nursing staff thought that the end was approaching, and by the evening he was feeling strong enough to look at them. That meant a lot to Leo and Albert and Amelia, that he saw their drawings and words and handprints. I think it will mean a lot to them as they grow up too, to know that Grandpa Steve knew how much they loved him.

Amelia’s portrait, a letter from Leo and a handprint from Albert

‘We love you Grandpa Steve. Get better soon’.

 

When Steve died just after midnight on the Sunday morning, the rest of the night was sleepless. Grace collected me from the hospital, I had been awake since 5am on Friday morning and was almost delirious with tiredness and grief. We sat with my son John until the sun came up, talking and crying and drinking tea, and then she went home to try and get a couple of hours of sleep before the children woke up. When they did, she brought them here, so we were all together. They came in with anxious faces and everyone cried, but then they needed breakfast and attention and cuddles – and the day unfolded with chattering and playing and arguing – in the midst of the exhaustion and sadness, it was exactly what we needed.

The tears came frequently that surreal day, for all of us, but kids do the ‘puddle jumping’ thing of dipping in and out of the big serious stuff, and then wanting to go out on their scooters. The consensus at the end of the day was that, now he didn’t need his body anymore, Grandpa Steve was everywhere, he was actually probably on the moon. When someone noticed that, on the side of the plastic flask with the built-in straw that Steve had at the hospital because it made drinking easier, there were the words ‘Future Astronaut’, that clinched it. Grandpa Steve was on the moon. They were all content with that understanding.

There’s no way of knowing whether preparing the children in the way we did has made a difference to how they have handled his death, but I feel we gave them as much help as we could before we all were plunged into the sadness and shock that consumed us.

We continued to include them and involve them as the days went by after he died. They were here every day, seeing me and Grace coping with the waves of sadness and tears that kept coming, we didn’t hide anything from them. Amelia taught us how her ‘invisibility cloak’ worked – if she wants to do or say something secretly, she puts her hand up over her face so she can’t see anyone, which, to a three-year-old mind, means obviously nobody can see her either. It became the custom that as my tears welled up, her darling little face would look concerned and she’d come over to me and say, ‘Do this Nana’ and put her hand in front of her face to show me how to be invisible until I had composed myself again.

Working out how to explain to children about the funeral and what it was for and why it was happening was interesting. Bearing in mind that Grandpa Steve was on the moon as far as they were all concerned, the palaver involved with the funeral seemed to them to be quite unnecessary. We now had to try and get them to understand the difference between Grandpa Steve’s body, which required something to happen to it, and Grandpa Steve who was everywhere and also on the moon.

That was a challenging car journey as we drove them to the woods where his body was going to be buried to show them the exact spot that we’d chosen. They had a lot of questions. Somehow, we navigated the explanations to a satisfactory level, although the ‘Why can’t we see his body?’ question ended up being answered by ‘Because of coronavirus’ – although true, that was probably not really enough of a reason to satisfy the curiosity of a six-year-old.

We talked them through what was going to happen, and showed them where, and reassured them again that Grandpa Steve’s body couldn’t feel anything anymore, so being buried was absolutely fine, it wouldn’t hurt him and was actually a really good thing because his body would become part of nature.  And that his eyes couldn’t see anything, and he didn’t need to breathe anymore, and he wasn’t in his body now and all of those other logical things that if not talked about might just confuse and frighten little minds.

They seemed to get it and were accepting that they’d be at school while all the mechanics of the funeral happened but that they’d be picked up early and brought up to the woods to see the grave once Grandpa Steve’s body had been buried there. 

And that’s exactly what happened. Grace and John left once the coffin had been lowered into the grave, and they collected the children and Juno, and brought them back to the burial ground. Everyone had gone, and the gravediggers were filling in the grave, so we had a little while to fill in before we could take them there.

We took them to the labyrinth, the one I’d help to create all those years ago, and I explained how the way the labyrinth works is that you take all your sad thoughts and pick up a stone and walk the labyrinth carrying it until you reach the centre, and then you leave the stone and all your sad thoughts right there, and walk back out the way you walked in.

They absolutely loved it, and, accompanied by Isabel and Rachel the photographer and a bottle of champagne, Leo, Albert and Amelia walked the labyrinth with me and their mum and their aunt and uncle, all of us carrying our stones and thinking our sad thoughts about the man we all loved who was no longer with us. And then we all went back through the woods to find Steve’s grave, and the children blew bubbles and sat on his bench and laughed and played.

The next day we all sat together and watched the film of the funeral so they could see what had happened while they were at school and nursery the previous day. They thought the swearing was very amusing and loved seeing the motorbikes and the coffin and the fact that ‘Big Andy’, Steve’s friend, managed to be facing the wrong way when he lifted the coffin at the end of the ceremony and had to do a scramble as the other bearers started walking out of the front of the building while he was facing the back. By watching me help lower the coffin into the grave they could relate completely to the memory of Kizzie’s body being placed in her little grave. It was just what they needed to complete their thought processes I think.

We’ve made it a weekly event, going to the woods together. They’re learning that they need to calm down and walk nicely instead of shrieking and shouting and climbing trees because there may be people visiting other graves who are feeling sad. They’re watching the turning of the seasons and understanding that all of life is a cycle of being born and living and dying. I’m so proud of them all. They’re learning that love doesn’t end with death, it just changes, and that’s such an important lesson to have learnt so young. They’re learning that you can have really, really sad feelings but that they don’t last forever, and most importantly of all they’re learning that by talking to each other when we’re feeling sad, we don’t have to cope on our own. I’m so lucky to have these little people by my side helping me get through these days.

 

 

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Helen Waters
Helen Waters
11 days ago

Fran, thank you for sharing your most personal experience. As a Celebrant, I see so many families try to hide the truth from their children, but I believe that your innocent honesty has to be the best way. I love the idea of leaving the stone. Perhaps not everyone has a labyrinth, but we can all find that special place to let go.

Jayne Lea
Jayne Lea
11 days ago

Hey beautiful, another Sunday evening, another week behind us in this strange new existence. Hope you are going to bed feeling safe and warm. I bought some daffodils today, a simple promise that Spring will come again.. Love, respect and grace xxx

Carole Warren
13 days ago

Fran, A thousand thank yous for this poignant reflection on working through death and dying and funerals and beyond with little folk!

Hilary Bolton
Hilary Bolton
13 days ago

Whilst I so wish you didn’t need to write this blog, when the alert pops up I literally cannot wait to access your inner thoughts Fran. You write so beautifully and from the heart. And I love how you have involved the children in the events of Steve’s death and funeral. My good wishes are with you all ❣️