It was a fast food drive-by kind of Sunday evening. We were on hamburger duty at church. I was tired, having spent the previous day with my daughter’s godfather at St Luke’s Hospice where he was dying.
He was a young man, too young to die, and in the quiet contained space of the hospice I had sat counting out every breath as if it might be his last. Sending text messages to my children at home telling them that I would be home soon, although it was after 7pm by the time I got home.
So by Sunday night I was tired. We were on our way to fetch Grace, 10, from a birthday party when 12-year-old Hannah said to me: ‘I’m worried that I haven’t said goodbye to Luke.’
She said it very calmly, but as I heard what she was saying it felt as though police sirens were going off in my head. Was it a good idea? Did she really want to do it, or did she just feel she should say that she wanted to? Did I know what being a good mother was? Did I know what road I was driving on? A million questions.
Then I looked at her and realised that this was something she really wanted to do. I reminded her that she had seen Luke a few days before and so she had in a way said goodbye to him, but she was determined.
We picked up Grace, full of sugar and stories of ice-skating. We told her we were going to St Luke’s because Hannah wanted to say goodbye to him. Grace didn’t think she would be able to do it. I told her she could sit outside in the lounge area.
We arrived and walked towards the room he was in. He was awake, far more so than he had been the day before, Hannah walked in and went straight to his bed put her arms around him and started to cry.
Was this what I had been afraid of, I wondered? Was I worried about how my child might feel if she didn’t know that she had said goodbye to someone she loved in her way, or had I been more concerned that she might create a scene or cause me or other people to feel awkward? How I wish there was a course that could kill the inner Wasp that lurks in me at times. Because of course it didn’t matter if she cried. It was natural and right that she did. She knew, and we all knew, that we were saying goodbye on this earth to a person who we loved.
Then I saw Grace come in. Luke’s eldest son had gone and found her in the lounge and he had brought her in with him. I suspect that his quirky manner of guiding people without sentimental drivel made it possible for her.
It turned out that it wasn’t the final goodbye. During the next week when Luke was doing okay(ish) he asked if we would bring the children to the hospice so that he could give them presents. The 21st birthday presents that he wouldn’t be there to give them. Grace, as his goddaughter, was the first to receive her beautiful pearl necklace, Hannah the second to have gorgeous garnets and pearls hung around her neck, and then there was a Bible for my 14-year-old son Alex, with a handwritten message from Luke.
So, what does all this mean? Do I think that my children are specially gifted at dealing with dying people? Not at all, but I do think that death is as much a part of life as birth.
My son was old enough to watch entranced as his baby sister appeared before him as a shifting form on an ultrasound screen. He was old enough to feel her kicking in my stomach.
We didn’t make him watch the birth, because birth like death is quite a scary and brutal thing to see, but we took him as far as we knew we could without giving him nightmares.
And, I believe, it is the same with death. There is no good reason why we should hide from our children the fact that we die and that it often hurts terribly and makes us scared and angry, as long as we follow their cues and hear what they are saying.Do you believe children should spend time with dying family and friends?