On every clear night my daughter, who is now 4, sees her "Paga", (my father). She points to the brightest star in the sky and says , excitedly, "Hi, Paga! I love you!" And then she blows "him" a kiss and hugs herself. Almost 18 months ago, my father passed away from Cancer. My daughter, who was 3 at the time, was close with him. She brought out joy in him and she loved to play with him. My son was one year old and doesn't remember him. But he is my fathers' spitting image. He walks like him, marches like him, is stubborn like him and surprises us on a daily basis with how much he is like my father.
When my father was diagnosed, my grandmother was four days away from leaving this world. My daughter was 18 months and my son was still in the womb. I remember the day after I sat in her pediatricians' office for a routine appointment. I was raw with emotion. I was hormonal from being pregnant and the doctor asked how I was. I sighed, started to cry and told her that I was having a tough time. I was going through an intense process of grief and possible grief, I was in the throws of first trimester pregnancy and I was worried how my instability was affecting my daughter. She assured me that she was ok. She told me to hug her when I needed comfort, and let her take the lead. But I wondered, how do I deal with death and helping my child who doesn't understand that dessert only comes after eating your vegetables, understand death? I had no idea where my journey would take me.
I did let my daughter take the lead. And it was beautiful to watch. Over the following year and a half, my father was in and out of hospitals. There were times when we wouldn't see him for over a month because we were sick and his immunity system was compromised. There were times when he entered the hospital for weeks at a time due to some sort of ailment or another. There was the time he shaved his head and I feared taking my daughter to see him, I was scared of her reaction. And ultimately, she had no reaction to it. As long as he was smiling, she was fine. Kids are resilient that way. And adaptable, more than we give them credit for. There was a time when he was in a state of confusion due to a head injury, and she was scared of him because he kept asking her questions over and over. But we redirected her and all was fine.
The month before my father passed, we were all at the mall and my father was walking with a cane. My daughter went to hug him goodbye and she was so exuberant she nearly knocked him over. We all laughed but she cried. At that moment I realized his demise of health was indeed affecting her. But I let her take the lead. In the car, she asked about him. We said he was still sick and to just be careful with him. But that he still loves her. And she said "I love him. I am sorry." I explained there was nothing to be sorry about. That it was an accident. My heart was breaking.
Four weeks later he passed away. I returned home from my moms' the morning after my dad's passing. My heart was heavy and I was nervous about telling my daughter that her Paga had passed away. We aren't overly religious. I ran through questions she might ask and the answers to them:
Q: How did he die?
A: He was sick, so sick that his body couldn't handle the bad "germs" anymore.
Q: Will I see him again?
A: Someday you will but not for a long time.
Q: Where did he go?
I was ready. Or so I thought. I open the door to my house and sighed. I hugged my husband. we pulled our daughter aside and my husband and I began to tell her that her Paga had died. She didn't ask all of the questions above. She did ask where he went. We began to talk about heaven but the concept was lost on her. I had remembered hearing someone say once that the loved ones who pass are on the brightest star. So I went with it. And she grabbed hold and I followed her lead.
Since then, she has a special bond with the night sky. Surprising us at the most random moments with memories of my father. And yes, we follow her lead when it comes to Paga.
Recently a friend, who is going through the same thing with her dad, asked how I handled it with my children. I gave her the suggestion of the star. But I also told her to follow her kids' lead.
Kids react in different ways. Depending on their age, understanding the topic of death can be difficult. It is a vague concept and not everyone believes the same thing. Everyone grieves differently. And the children have to navigate how the adults are grieving, their own grief and understanding the concept if death: it can be a lot. And their feelings and grief can manifest in many different ways. Fear, anger and attachment may occur, leaving the parent to be exhausted. But before exhaustion comes, take a moment, talk with your child and follow their lead.