Sometimes, we try to shield our children from the harsh realities of life. Regardless of whether we try and divert their uncorrupted eyes from the humping baboons at the zoo or prevent our munchkins from finding out that Santa Claus is actually an overweight retired caretaker named Kevin from Barnsley, we do this out of a sense of protection of their transient innocence.
When it comes to the taboo of death, it’s not uncommon for parents to use some form of metaphor to convey a less brutal depiction of the passing away of a loved one, especially to younger children who can’t yet grasp the full complexities of life and death. I am no exception to this rule.
In July 2010, my mother passed away from stage 4 lung cancer and didn’t get to see the birth of our children, our first being born in 2012. We try and keep my mother’s memory alive by referring to her as “little nanny” and there are a few photos of her scattered around the house that our children now recognise as little nanny. However, as our children see my in-laws regularly, there is a clear absence from little nanny and when I talk to the kids about her, they inevitably ask where she is.
There’s no watertight metaphor that doesn’t invite more questioning. As you elaborate and the story unfolds, as do the lies (white or otherwise). So, when I opted for the temporary “she’s gone to be a star in the sky”, it caused a lot of confusion and questioning.
“Why is she a star?”,
“But, people can’t fly?”,
“Why doesn’t she come back down?”.
I respond “Little nanny would love to come back down, but now that she’s a star in the sky, she can’t come down”. None of this makes any sense, but I’ve trapped myself in this hideous story about dead people becoming stars.
“But, can she come down to play with us?” they ask,
I reply with “I’d like her to come down too, but she needs to stay in the sky so she can light up the night”.
This is usually when I have to hold back the tears as I imagine what it would have been like for her to have met any of my children. They would have adored her and she would have doted on them with unrivalled affection. It would have been lovely to have seen that relationship grow and development, but unfortunately it can only be left to my imagination.
I’m not sure how you explain how their grandma died of lung cancer before they were born, but clearly I’m not doing a great a job right now. What do you say? I have no idea what metaphor would work. Evidently.
“But...why is she a star...?”
I have no idea why she is a star, I really have no idea why this seemed like a good explanation.
“Because she got poorly ...” How does this make any sense? I’m not sure where this is going. My son looks confused. I think I've confused myself too. “Little nanny got really poorly and had to leave to be a star in the sky, but she loves you lots and would have wanted to see you and play with you, it's just that she had to leave”.
At this stage, I'm paranoid that I've scared my son into thinking that any illness will propel him into the midnight sky on a one way ticket to celestial oblivion. Yet, on the other hand, I don't want to totally shield him from the reality of illness and death. His expression seems like a mixture of mainly confusion with a very light sprinkling of sadness. I now feel sad that he feels sad, this is all getting a bit ridiculous.
So, I take the approach that one of the ways to appease his curiosity is to look out into the night sky to see if we can spot the stars in the sky. This seems to divert his attention as he points out the different stars. Then, he says "Look! Mr Moon is out tonight," pointing to the big grey lunar satellite.
I smile and acknowledge his observations. But, my mind is occupied by thoughts of my mum and how this star gazing could have been her holding my son and enjoying the starry night sky, if things had turned out differently. However, I am not too down about it. It's good to be able to speak to the kids about her, even if it does result in staring into the night sky to see Mr Moon and the sparkling dead people surrounding him...
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