We made the conscious decision when Dad fell ill not to do the ‘Grandchild Parade’. Our boys have not had a fluffy relationship, a la Grandpa Jo from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Yes, Big Pa has been there and their lasting memory will be of Big Pa cheering them on at the Ultra-Trail Australia kids race this year.
DSX is particularly sensitive and at 4 years old, his world is literal. His world is his world. It is real. We do not shy away from speaking openly in front of the boys about what is happening in our grown up world. DSX and DSS need to see examples of high emotion, of language that might not make sense but intonation and expression convey what comprehension might lose. Our anxiety and angst are palpable. By being honest and not shying away, they see that grown ups get upset too. We’re not immune to tears, frustration, confusion or hurt. I just hope how we deal with that high emotion is a healthy example.
When appropriate we have involved DSX in the conversations we have had. When Dad fell ill and we were coming to terms with the finality of the situation and the changes in our well talked through plans we sat each day with DSX to reassure him that, yes, Big Pa is very sick, that he will die and that we (Mum and Dad) need to help Nain at the moment. During one of these exchanges DSX looked at me intently, spread his hands wide in question and asked in all seriousness, ‘But if Big Pa is so sick, why don’t you take him to the vet?’ Good question indeed?
We have said goodbye to Puppy the cat and, Madeline in DSX’s lifetime. DSX still asks for Puppy-puss and I’m reminded every so often that ‘ we need to go to the big Yellow Pet Shop and bring a Puss home ‘cos Nain won’t let us have Monty.’ We can’t go to the big Yellow Pet Shop for a replacement Big Pa so marking his passing with books is the best we can do.
Finding reading material to gently reinforce the finality of this dying process has been tricky. Finding picture books that are in equal measures sensitive to the topic, not overly emotional, that are real (Big Pa is not sleeping forever; He may or may not go to heaven) and, accessible to a real world 4 year old all without being frightening. It sounds like a tall order…does anyone know a published children’s author who could help us out?
I realise that there are many good books that address grief, death and dying. If DSX were older, The Velveteen Rabbit is a gorgeous modern classic to read together and pull apart. But he’s not. I probably sit with Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) that we shouldn’t shield young minds (children) from the dark and that what we read with them needs to reflect the truth, and even fantasy needs to be rooted in reality. What I was able to do was get my hands on the following three books (number four is yet to arrive so I will update as soon as it does) which have offered us diversity, simplicity and lightness all wrapped up in straight talking words.
The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
We are quite the Oliver Jeffers fans in this house. Lost and Found (DVD) is amongst my favourite 16 minutes spent in front of the televison.
This story is quite poignant for our family because, legend will have it that Big Pa sat down in his big blue armchair and didn’t get up. This little book is placed in another time of simple pleasures. A story about a child discovering the world by asking questions and exploring with her chaperone (possibly father but, lets not assume) until, the chaperone’s armchair sits empty. In order to keep her heart safe, the child explorer puts her heart in a glass bottle secured around her neck. The shine and curiosity in the world is dulled over time. Until another little person piques the now adults interest in the world again and needs their heart reinstated to its original home. Oliver Jeffers clever illustrations have used colour, light and dark tell the story more than the words. I did think that it was a little left of centre for DSX. But, he got it. “The heart needs to come out of the bottle for the life to go back into the world.”
We see Mum in this story. Maybe her journey through shade, light (grandchildren and community) and rediscovering self beyond that defined as ‘carer’. The shadow of the chair will always be there. The myriad of colour and newness in the world is here as well.
I’ll always love you, Hans Wilhelm
A story of a boy and his dog and the passing of time. I can see a similarity between the little boy narrator and his Elfie to our own DSX and DSS with J-Dog. The narrator and family notice that Elfie is slowing down, needs help, even needs wheels. We’ve spoken about Big Pa with his cane or, walking frame, and that he’s been wobbly because, ‘his bones are tired’. When Elfie dies in her sleep, the little boy finds a comfort in knowing that each evening he told her, ‘I’ll always love you.’
Each evening when we put the boys to bed, we always tell them that we love them. We also make a point of saying ‘Thank you’ for something in the day. Be it as simple as, ‘Thank you for keeping me company.’ I think its important that we not only use love language with our boys but also, gratitude for our days.
This little book has delightfully soft illustrations and gentle words.
Beginnings and Endings and Lifetimes in Between, Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen
I have a feeling that I may have encountered this book in a library somewhere. It is sensitively written, explaining that death is a part of living, for all living things. As the title says, there are beginnings, and endings and lifetimes in between for every living thing. This book doesn’t have the simple emotion that ‘I’ll always love you’ has. It is very matter of fact, which I like and I think suits DSX. A butterfly emerges (‘from a caterpillar, he forgot the caterpillar’, ‘yes dear, the author forgot the caterpillar’), it lives and in a short time frame, its living time is over. The same for humans. We’re born, we grow, we live in many different ways and experiences but then, endings happen for some, while living goes on.
Harry and Hopper, Margaret Wild, illustration Freya Blackman
I’m waiting impatiently for this to arrive in the mailbox. An Australian offering and moreover, an author and illustrator combination we are familiar with. Margaret Wild’s Hush, hush and Kiss, kiss are high rotation favourites in our house. As is, The Runaway Hug illustrated by Freya Blackman. I will have to update this post when it arrives.
An important role that these books, and others, will have is to mark a time of mourning. In our situation, there will be no formal send off for Big Pa. No official goodbye by family and friends overseen by ‘someone’ disconnected other than by circumstance. Eventually, I hope as a family, we will come together to connect over shared experiences, shared cut of jib and chuckle at the effects of nature and nurture in a family spread across space and time. In the mean time, we will each mourn, grieve and live on in our own way.