Telling my young kids their father had died was probably the worst thing I have ever had to do.
It’s not something you can really prepare yourself for. Do you break it to them gently? Are you honest and completely truthful? Should you spare them the details to ease the pain? Do you use distraction techniques (OK enough tears kids, the cat’s attacking the dog. Let’s go watch!)? Should you be the strong one? Do you cry with them? I’m not sure there is a text book right or wrong way, but one hot sunny day in the summer of 2013 that is exactly what I found myself having to do. My children were five and eight years old at the time.
Their father died suddenly of a heart condition. We had separated when our kids were very young some five years previously. It was a fairly horrible break up and for a year after it was clouded with hatred and bitterness on both parts.
But after a year or so things began to settle down and the anger and battles subsided. We made a huge effort to get along for the kid’s sake and it worked. A few years later he met a girl, moved back to the UK and got married. Meanwhile I met a boy and stayed in Spain and got engaged. We became friends again and things were good, peaceful and very amicable.
He was always a good part time dad. When he lived in Spain he had the kids every other weekend and a day or two in the week. We had a flexible agreement and it worked well. When he returned to the UK he would fly out every few weeks and have them over a long weekend or during the school holidays and we would return to the UK to visit him there.
Our extended family worked extremely well and the kids thrived and loved staying with daddy and their new step mum.
In July 2013 he flew over and took them off for a week in the school holidays. They returned with tales of beach trips and pool parties and lots of ice-cream. They looked happy and healthy. He on the other hand looked bloated and pasty and unwell.
Just a few weeks later his brother-in-law came to my house very early one morning and told me the news that he had died suddenly during the night. A coroner’s report later showed it was a heart condition he never knew he had. He was 47 years old.
The kids were up and watching television so I buried myself in a room alone. I cried for our lost years, the years we had enjoyed and the good stuff. I cried for the bad stuff too. All the anger I had left behind years ago resurfaced. How could he bloody leave me to sort this out? Break our children’s hearts and leave them with such a terribly painful scar? All day I wallowed in my grief trying to deal with the emotional turmoil I was feeling before I faced my children. I had to be ready.
I decided to tell them after breakfast. So I made them breakfast.
Then I put a movie on. I’d let them watch that first, then I would tell them.
I made them lunch. I would tell them after lunch. They shouldn’t be told on an empty stomach.
I watched them play in the pool. Let them have their fun. I would tell them after when they were quiet and calm.
I made them snacks. I had to tell them soon. I didn’t want to leave it right until bedtime.
Eventually I sat them on my bed and said I had something very, very sad to tell them about someone dying. My son asked with a scared look on his face if one of our dogs had died.
No I said. I don’t know how to tell you, so I’m just going to say it . . . but it’s daddy who has died.
My eight year old daughter made a sound that I hear in my dreams, like a wail interspersed with the word ‘no’. My five year old son just looked frantically between his sister and me with a look of panic, confusion and fear on his little face. Then he sobbed silently.
As I held them rocking on my bed they asked how and where and when. I filled in the gaps as best I could and repeated that he had felt no pain and he had just fallen asleep and that he had loved them immensely.
We lay on my bed for what seemed like hours wrapped up in a jumble of arms and legs as they clutched me seeking comfort.
Later that evening we stood outside and we found his star. We held a memorial for him in Spain a few weeks later and we released a sky full of helium filled dove balloons with our messages written on them. My daughter read out something she had written and I have never been so proud of their strength.
For weeks after it was hard. I remember on one occasion being a few minutes late collecting my son from his karate class and as we walked to the car he burst into tears. What’s the matter I asked. “I thought you had died too:” he sobbed.
We had lots of discussions over the weeks about death. I had to promise my son I wouldn’t die. He became quite scared he would lose anyone at any time. Suddenly death was a real threat for him or his friends or his family. Not just ‘old people’.
But 18 months down the road we have made it. Time heals as they say. They still ask or talk about him on occasions and I always try and talk about him and bring him into the conversation now and again. I made them a memory box each with photos and trinkets and we planted a fig tree in the garden, which is now growing strong, and we hang a ribbon on it every anniversary. They each have a framed photograph of themselves with him on their bedside table.
Some days they laugh at the silly things daddy used to do. Some nights they go to bed with his photo clutched to their chest. Other days they will cry for no apparent reason until they admit, that actually it’s just because they “miss daddy”.