Losing a loved one makes for a difficult time for everyone, but for a parent to young children there are many challenges to be faced for both you and them. Having to teach a child to grieve feels like an unthinkable concept for any parent or carer but sadly it is a reality for many families. To mark Children’s Grief Awareness Week 2019 we have this touching guest post from Jon Lomas who shares with us his story of loss and fatherhood. Jon wrote this piece a few months back whilst reflecting on the conversations he had with his son and wanted to help other parents struggling with those difficult conversations about loss.
The Hardest Words at the Hardest of Times
Guest Post by Jon Lomas
My son, Ezra, and his Grandad have been inseparable; best friends since the day he was born. The same tricks my Dad played on me when I was little have been unleashed on Ezra by a gleeful Grandad totally head-over-heels in love with the new little man running around the family home. Where Grandad would go, Ezra wouldn’t be too far behind. Being pushed around the garden in his Little Tikes car, pausing only to water the plants, became a favourite pastime of Grandson, cheerfully looking over his shoulder at Grandad smiling from ear-to-ear enjoying his retirement with his new best buddy.
If a visit to Nana and Grandad hadn’t materialised the prior weekend, Ezra’s long wait to spend Monday with them would be punctuated by palpable excitement in the back of Daddy’s car as we approached their house. Ezra’s giddiness grew as he got closer to being lifted from his car seat by Grandad who’d walk to the end of the drive to meet his little buddy. “Grandad!” was the first indication I’d receive that my Dad was waiting to scoop up Ezra and take him inside to play and tell Nana all about his weekend.
I’ve always been close with my grandparents, but seeing Ezra with his makes me realise just how special that relationship is.
A fact I maybe took for granted. Seeing Ezra and my Dad so happy in each other’s company repeatedly brought a happiness unlike any other. And then, in August, my Dad suddenly and unexpectedly passed away. As the family reeled from the shock, something we’ve still not come to terms with, thoughts turned to Ezra and how we’d tell him about Grandad. How could we muster ourselves enough to knowingly break this child’s heart? Would he even understand? Would he laugh it off, thinking Grandad was simply hiding and will spring out to surprise him?
The first question people would ask me was “How’re you doing?” The question all of our friends with children asked next was, invariably, “what have you told Ezra?” As parents we all traverse the unknown every day. There are some situations we’re prepared for, some we can fumble our way through and some which are a no-win scenario – a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ to quote my Dad’s much-loved Star Trek.
I committed to spending time in Liverpool to support my Mum and Sister, who, in turn supported me. My wife, Anna, stayed home, holding down the fort, looking after Ezra (who still didn’t know) and his baby sister Elodie (who will only know of her Grandad and his legacy from the stories we’ll tell her in years to come.)
A couple of days passed and Ezra couldn’t understand why Daddy was going to Nana’s house without him. I came home before bedtime one night, needing nothing but a hug from my little boy, when Anna told me she’d been researching how to tell a toddler about the death of someone close. The advice she’d picked up was to be factual, to avoid clichés and metaphors and be almost brutally honest. I took a deep breath, bravely pausing Peppa Pig, and joined Ezra sitting on the living room floor to tell him the awful news.
“Ezra,” I began. “Grandad has died. And what that means is you’re not going to see Grandad anymore.” It was at this point I started crying. Concern swept across Ezra’s 2 and a half year old face as I continued. “But remember that Grandad loves you. And will always love you.” By this point, I was weeping uncontrollably – which has been my default setting since the morning we lost Dad. Ezra looked over my shoulder at Mummy sitting on the sofa, now holding back tears herself and said “Mummy, Daddy’s sad.”
I couldn’t believe the empathy from someone so small.
I pulled him close and hugged him like I’d never hugged him before, composing myself just enough to reiterate what I’d told him and asking him if he understood. He said that he did before asking me to un-pause Peppa Pig. I wasn’t sure if he had understood or not, we’d have the talk again tomorrow, and I joined Anna on the sofa to continue crying.
As days went by, Ezra asked to join me as I visited ‘Nana’s house,’ asking to see Grandad and hearing the news all over again in response. ‘Grandad’s died’ and ‘you won’t see Grandad anymore’ were statements repeated to Ezra with heartbreakingly regularity in the hope he’d understand. In little under a week, it seemed the tide had turned and reality began to settle in; Ezra appeared to grasp that my Dad wasn’t around anymore and he even started repeating our sad mantra of “Grandad died; won’t see Grandad anymore.” It felt like a milestone moment and so we opted to move on to explaining the contrasting feelings of happiness and sadness to Ezra who stared intently at us, wrapping his head around this new concept.
“It’s OK to feel sad,” we told him, “Daddy feels sad.” It was important for us to reinforce that sadness isn’t all there is, even when it seems like your world is crashing down around you, sadness exists because happiness has existed. And the happiness Ezra brought to his Grandad was exactly what we wanted Ezra to understand. “You made Grandad very happy,” we’d tell him and he’d nod and say ‘yeah’, well aware of the smile-inducing powers that accompanied him into this world. The fact he made Dad happy, made me happy, because, by extension, something I’d done (brought Ezra into this world) had made my Dad happy. To have been given the opportunity to give something back to the man who gave me everything is something for which I’m extremely grateful. However, explaining these feelings to Ezra opened a door to conversations I never expected to have with someone not yet 3 years old.
Since he moved into his ‘big boy bed’ a year ago, Ezra’s preferred bedtime routine has been for me to lie on the floor next to him, reading a book and holding his hand as he drifts off. In the days immediately after Dad’s passing, I’d lay on Ezra’s bedroom floor crying until he or I, or indeed both of us, fell asleep. Eventually, I’d be able to compose myself enough to pick up ‘The Gruffalo’ or ‘Milo’s Dog Goes Moo’ and it was during momentary, page-turning lulls that Ezra would roll over, peer at me from over his bed rail and tell me “Daddy, I’m sad.” When I’d ask why, he’d tell me “Grandad died.” I’d lift him out of bed, sit him on my knee and explain that it’s OK to be sad, that Grandad was happy and that he’d want us all to be happy even though it’s a little difficult right now. When I thought Ezra understood, and we’d had a cuddle, I asked him if he was still feeling sad. When he said ‘no’, I’d give him a squeeze and then put him back in bed to hear the end of the story we’d started earlier.
On the subject of bedtime stories…
Anna found a book called ‘Are You Sad, Little Bear?: A Book About Learning to Say Goodbye’ by Rachel Rivett and illustrated by Tina Macnaughton. The book is beautifully written and if you too have to try explaining such a difficult situation to a child, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more helpful 32 pages. The book touches on losing someone close and the new beginnings that might come from that. But a word of warning: you’ll have to be made of stone to make it through this charming story without blubbering uncontrollably.
Through all of this, a thing I’ve struggled to reconcile is that, as parents, it’s our job to protect our little ones from hurt and yet this is a hurt none of us can escape. There’s no protecting a child from the fact that people die, especially when it’s sudden and unexpected. Losing Dad hit all of us hard, not least my Grandparents who ended up in hospital, reeling from the shock of it all. Unfortunately, 17 days after losing Dad, my Nan developed an infection and passed away surrounded by her family. Again, it was time to sit Ezra down and tell him “Little Nan died.” He looked at me like I must’ve been confused; it was Grandad who’d died, not Little Nan. When he visited my grandparents’ house, the realisation that I wasn’t confused and there was another family member missing caused another wave of sadness we were wildly incapable of shielding him from.
Just over 60 days since losing Dad, we still have to remind Ezra of what’s happened, not to cause him more pain, but to prevent further hurt when things don’t go back to how they were. And he remembers, but you can tell he still doesn’t fully understand. Sitting in the back of the car, riding to Nana’s house for his regular Monday visit, Ezra will engage me in what seems like a typical toddler/parent conversation.
“What is it?”
“Go on, Ezra. What is it?”
It’s like the longest, cruellest knock-knock joke; its punchline delivering not a laugh but a full-force gut punch.
I’m one person he doesn’t have to remind. But he reminds me because he’s suffered hurt, hurt I’ve been unable to protect him from. So, since I can’t protect him, I’ll take every gut punch I need to, to suffer along with him, doing all I can to make sure he never feels alone and being the best Dad I could hope to be. Because that’s what my Dad was to me. And if I’m lucky and Ezra grows up thinking of me as a good dad, he’ll know it’s because his Grandad was a good man who enriched our lives and whose life was enriched by being a Grandad.
That’s the truth. And that’s exactly what we knew we had to tell Ezra.
We can’t thank Jon enough for sharing this story with us. To say it is extremely moving feels like a huge understatement. It really makes you sit up and think as a parent about how you would manage in this situation. Jon, your strength and courage is truly inspirational and we’re sure your dad is so proud of the father you have become.
Child Bereavement UK has lots of resources and information to help those families with grieving children and offer tools to find counselling and support in your local area.
Thank you again Jon and we wish you and your family peace and happiness with the treasured memories of your loved ones.