I woke up in a stranger’s room. As I scrambled to explore the uniqueness of my situation, an aunty came rushing to give me a hug. If I close my eyes, I can recall the exact pattern of the bedsheet and the sunlight filtering inside the room. I was hungry, confused and I wanted my mom. Soon, I was surrounded by three young ladies (I recognized them as my sister’s friends) who ushered me to the breakfast table. Aware in the knowledge that I was in safe hands, I got down enjoying my breakfast. I was quite comfortable playing with random stuff in their house and a lost creative soul like me did not even question my mother’s absence or my presence in their home. Besides the colorful blocks warranted my attention. However, I was soon ushered into a lift and I knew we were going back home. And from then on things suddenly started happening too soon.
I can still clearly remember the bang of the elevator as it was slammed open. I remember being surprised to see friends and acquaintances gathered outside my place; literally spilling out. Smiling was in my DNA but for once, no one was smiling back. That bothered me.
I stood there, soaking the general buzz of noise and wailing emerging from my home. When those didis deposited me, I felt lost- they had been my anchor since morning. But different pairs of hands propelled me forward. I stood numb in the passageway. Everything suddenly started moving in slow motion. I was scared but I didn’t feel it. My favourite uncle (my father’s best friend) came forward and gently propelled me forward. I can still see the calmness etched on his face. People made way for me as I walked in and then I saw my father.
He was a tall man and a tall man laid down on the floor claims a lot of space. My father just did that. Dressed in white, he looked as dashing as ever. Even he was not smiling. And he had this ridiculous garland around his neck. Even at that young age, I intrinsically realized that this was the last time I was seeing him. Thankfully, I gazed at him long and hard enough to memorize his face. While I was being gently propelled into the other room, I turned for one last look. I was not allowed to see him anymore.
I crossed the room to see my mother crying. Crying. My mother never cried. I realized then that I had always seen her either quiet or smiling or laughing. My father made sure of that. And at that moment, I felt that sense of loss. That hopelessness. The feeling that I am doomed. Its then when I started crying.
I now carry snippets of images from my childhood in my head. Playing in the park and seeing my friends fathers come back from work. Sensing my mother’s loneliness on Holi and Diwali. Witnessing my mother‘s assertiveness. Having a male support system in the form of cousins and uncles etc. but yet maintaining a boundary to safeguard out interests. Life without dad was counting risks and reminding ourselves that we couldn’t be too safe. Life without Dad was not fun.
When a young 3 year old loses a close one, it can be tough. Be it a toy, a pet, a sibling or a parent.
And the stakes are higher, because adults can verbalise their feelings whereas children can express their hollowness only through behaviour.
Death in the family is a teachable moment- just like the changing seasons and the wilted flowers!
· Validate the pain :
Explain the situation in simple terms. It’s okay to cry in front of the children, but don’t go overboard with tears. Be stable. Often children react to grief differently from adults- they appear disinterested or behave as if they are ignorant of the situation. If the child shows such an inclination to internalize, make space for the silence and the quiet. Don’t take anything personally.
Against public opinion, my mother decided to let me the one last look at my Dad post his death. A wise woman, she probably knew that it was the only way I could get in touch with my loss later in life. That 5 second interface gave me that much needed closure.
· Answer their questions, no matter how hard.
Children learn by asking questions. Let them know that all questions are okay to ask, and to answer questions truthfully. I cannot underline the importance of telling them how little we know about death. Let them know that you don’t know.
Kids until age 6 do not understand that death is permenant. Hence, be clear and use phrases like – the body has stopped working. Avoid euphemisms like lost/passed away. Children between the ages of 6 to 10 start to grasp the finality of death. So, prayers and wishful thinking nudge them towards their own belief system.
· Include the excluded.- Let it not fade into oblivion
Some children love hearing stories of when Daddy got wet in the rain or when Mommy used to light diyas at Diwali. Try making that special someone a part of your tradition. I still remember looking at my Dad’s photograph before every examination. A close friend used to call her father –her Friday dad because after the divorce, he made it a point to call her every Friday without fail. Bonding makes us secure.
· Sharing the pain
A close friend lost the love of her life and her husband recently. Her 3 year old son was the only light in her otherwise saddened life. Instead of choosing isolation, she deals with her emotions by regularly posting pictures of them as a couple, smiling and laughing .The mother may not have realized it but the healing process has begun. The little boy is blessed.
When you allow the “ONE” to enter your conversations, you give an implicit permission to the child to share his pain.
Let them draw, cry, scream, role play or write a description of the person they miss. Even if you don’t, it will happen on its own. Children re grieve as they achieve new developmental stages.
Listen to the child’s feelings without trying to fix him. Phrases like “I know how you feel” or “I can feel your pain” feel so empty. “Would you like to share? Or “I am here to listen” are what you really need to say.
Be alert for signs that a child needs professional help. A radical change in behaviour or overtly destructive behaviour is a silent call for help.
These are cheerful days and yet I chose this particular topic to write. But a close friend lost her husband after a painful fight with lung cancer. And she was looking for help for her 3 year old son. The mother and professional in me decided to get to work.
Some books to help-
1. When dinosaurs die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie and Marc Brown
2. I miss you: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas
3. Help me say Goodbye: Activities for helping Kids cope when a special Person dies by Janis Silverman
Love in the last blog of 2015,