Losing a loved one is quite simply just heartbreaking. Mourning the loss of that person can be very difficult, and even more so when young children are grieving too. It is now 3 years since my Nan, Ethan’s great-Nan passed away and when I look back over that time I realise just how right I got things with Ethan when explaining Nan’s illness and subsequently her passing.
In early 2012 my Nan, Mary, got jaundice, we giggled with her saying she looked like someone from The Simpsons. Nan was never unwell, I don’t ever recall her having a cold! She visited the doctor and they said they suspected she had gallstones and they would send her for a scan. It was nothing to worry about. We weren’t worried.
What happened next was a huge shock, it wasn’t gallstones, it was pancreatic cancer and worse still, it was terminal. This couldn’t be happening, this happened to other people not my Nan, not my family, she couldn’t die, surely they had got it wrong. The specialists explained that palliative chemotherapy would hopefully keep Nan as comfortable as possible but realistically we were looking at 6-9 months. My world came crashing down, I had always been close to my grandparents, we lived with them, 4 generations living in one house! I felt so lucky that Ethan was being raised in a house filled with so much love with his mummy, Nan, Great- Nan and Great-Grandad, but that was going to change, his Great-Nan was going to be gone, how would I explain all of this to a young child.
Ethan was only just 2 years old when Nan was diagnosed and so he was too young to understand what was going on, but when Nan had a day when she felt rotten and would be in bed he would always go and cuddle her and I always told him “be careful, Nanny Mary has a poorly tummy’. Nan was a true fighter and soon 9 months had passed, she had bad days but she was still going out shopping etc… she knew that time was limited but she never dwelled on it she quite simply just enjoyed the time that she did have. Christmas 2012 was a turning point, Nan was in and out of hospital and we all knew that our time really was limited, I knew that this would be our last Christmas, she was deteriorating and I realised that somehow I was going to have to prepare Ethan for what was to come. I didn’t want to overload him with lots of information, he was so young but I felt I needed to prepare him for the day we would be waking up and Nan wasn’t here. I found a way to help start explaining things to him, we started by watching the Disney film ‘Up’. Now this film is a comedy adventure about Carl Fredricksen, he has a lifelong ambition to visit South America and he fulfils it by tying 1000’s of balloons to his house and floating there. Yes, funnily enough this movie introduced grief to my child. Early on in the film we see flashbacks of Mr Fredricksen with his wife Ellie, we see them falling in love, buying their house, having lots of fun, planning an adventure to South America, but then we see Ellie become sick and she dies, Mr Fredricksen is extremely sad but he vows he will make their dream trip to South America happen. Ellie dying in the movie became the starting point for preparing Ethan for losing his Nanny Mary. Over the space of a few months we watched UP several times, I would say “ooh let’s watch the movie with the floating house” and Ethan would happily watch it over and over again. Each time I would start to chat with him about the character of Ellie dying, explaining that everyone dies at some point, some old, some young and although it is very sad to lose someone we will always have our memories and when we feel sad we should just think of a happy memory.
Around May 2013 it was quite clear that we didn’t have much time left with Nan. One night as I put Ethan to bed I told him that Nan was just like Ellie from the movie, she would have to go and live with the angels because they needed help looking down on everyone. His response was so clear, he looked at me and said “if nanny Mary goes to be an angel she can look after us”. This innocent 3 year old boy understood, he understood that our beloved Nan would have to go soon. I was so proud of him.
June 4th 2013, we knew it was just a matter of hours. Nan was with us at home and at this point was mostly unresponsive but I still felt she knew we were there with her. Just before 6pm Ethan was getting ready to go upstairs for a story and bedtime, I told him to go and give Nanny Mary a kiss, which he did. He was never phased seeing Nan unwell in bed, never scared. When we went upstairs I said to him “remember when we spoke about nanny Mary going to live with the angels? Well she will have to go there soon”, I will never forget his reply, “OK mummy, can I have some juice?” As I made my way downstairs to get his juice I heard my mum shout us all to ‘come quick’, I rushed into my Nan’s bedroom and there, at 6.04pm, surrounded by her family my Nan passed away. About an hour passed and I realised I hadn’t taken Ethan his juice, I went back upstairs and he was fast asleep in bed. I finally made it to bed around 3am and Ethan woke up as I climbed into bed, “Mummy, is nanny Mary with the angels now?”. I scooped him up, cuddled him next to me in my bed and said “yes she is, so she will be watching us all the time”
The days that followed were some of the hardest days we have faced as a family, Ethan was very laid back about things though, he kept us laughing, he gave my grandad a reason to carry on without his wife of 50+ plus years, he gave us all a reason to keep on going I guess. Nan’s birthday, Christmas etc… we buy a helium balloon and Ethan goes in the garden and lets it go, he says he is sending it to Nanny. Sometimes we send a balloon for no reason, just to remember her. He loves Mr Kipling angel cake slices and he thinks they are made by his Nanny Mary and the angels, I don’t quite have the heart just yet to tell him they come from a factory!
He is now 6 years old and we still talk about Nan every day, she is mentioned in conversation at some point. Ethan will often talk about a memory he has of Nan or he will ask a question about her. We have had times where he has had a cry and said he misses her and I have explained that it’s OK to cry, to miss someone, to feel sad, but we should always remember all the happy things about that person. We still watch ‘Up’ every so often and Ethan always remarks that Ellie is just like Nanny Mary!
In a way I think that helping Ethan through the loss of a loved one actually helped me with my grief too, I saw things through a child’s eyes, it was easier to remember all the good times.
I know this has been a long read and so thank you if you made it this far! I wanted to write this as I think sometimes we avoid talking about death and grief and how we cope. I know not everyone would explain things the same as me but this is the way that worked, and continues to work, for us.