A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
Earlier this week I met with a child psychologist to discuss my son; naturally I’m concerned about how he has and will respond to losing his mother at such a young age. Jackson was at the scene when Desreen was killed and he was clearly affected: he grew scared of sirens overnight; he became confused and cross; and his temper, at times, was out of control, to a point where I was frightened that he might hurt himself if it couldn’t be stopped. And back then he wasn’t even three years old.
This week he turned three-and-a-half and it was on his ‘half birthday’ that I found myself discussing his well-being in the company of an expert who I noticed used the words dead and death a lot. The conversation made me realise that, while I’m satisfied that I took the age-appropriate steps to explain my wife’s disappearance to our son, I had somewhat shied away from consistently explaining that she had actually died.
‘Jackson, Mummy’s gone away and she can’t ever come back. She didn’t want to go. She would never have left you out of choice because she loved you more than anyone or anything in the world. But Daddy’s still here and I’m going to look after you now. And I know how to look after you because Mummy taught me.’
Those were the exact words I used to explain Desreen’s sudden departure from our world. I’d taken advice from child bereavement charities including Winston’s Wish, Grief Encounter and Child Bereavement UK, and so I understood that, at the time, Jackson was too young to understand the meaning of dead or killed. But recently I’ve noticed that some of my son’s friends, especially those who are six to twelve months older than him, are more aware of death. I suppose I have spent the last few months enjoying watching him live through a stage of blissful naivety. But all the while I’ve been very conscious of the fact that he won’t dwell there forever; I’ve been constantly reminding myself that I need to continue to help him understand the realities of life.
As I sat chatting with the psychologist, I asked how she would explain death to such a young child.
‘I’d be very concrete about it,’ she said. ‘Don’t make things opaque.’
She told me how she would describe the difference between a person who is alive and a person who has died: essentially that one functions while the other doesn’t. She also advised me on how to use insects to – one alive and one dead – to demonstrate the point.
The next morning, on Good Friday, I was cleaning the house when I found a dead ladybird on the floor. I scooped it up and went to find my son downstairs.
‘Jackson, can you see how this ladybird can’t move?’ I asked. He prodded it roughly with his finger. ‘Well that’s because it has died, and when we die we can’t move and we can’t use our arms or legs.’
‘Yes we can!’ he said with a big smile across his face.
‘No we can’t, Jackson.’
‘Oh!’ he considered, looking a little confused.
‘Mummy died, too, Jackson. And that’s why she can’t move her body, either,’ I went on.
‘Yes she can!’ he giggled. ‘She can fly with a blanket on her back.’ It must be so confusing for a child to be told that his mummy is in the sky but that she can’t actually fly.
‘She can’t, Jack-Jack. Mummy can’t move her body anymore because she’s dead, too. Like this ladybird.’
‘Oh!’ he said again, this time stroking the bug’s back gently. ‘It’s beautiful, Daddy.’
‘Just like Mummy,’ I replied.
Within seconds he was playing with trains and laughing about something silly. I, on the other hand, had more grave things on my mind. It doesn’t matter how clear I am with him, I always worry about exactly how much of the information I pass on is processed by his infant mind.
‘Daddy!’ he whispered to me on Easter Sunday afternoon. ‘This bug is dead.’
I examined a centipede on the doormat he was pointing towards and showed Jackson that it was in fact still alive.
‘Can you see how his legs are still moving?’
‘Oh, yes,’ he replied. ‘When you die you can’t move your legs, Daddy.’ He froze and did his statue impression – something new and hysterical that he’s picked up from a party game, which sees him standing on one leg, wobbling, open-jawed and with eyes that look suspiciously full of motion for something that is supposed to be made of stone.
‘That’s right,’ I confirmed. ‘And can you remember who else has died?’
‘The ladybird and Mummy,’ he said before reprising his animate state and running round in circles to demonstrate how the living are still able to move.
Easter, I thought. How interesting that this is one of the only times of year when adults will comfortably talk to children about death. And yet what have we got to hide when it’s such an inevitable part of life?