‘Granny isn’t going to get better’
Words don’t always come easy when explaining terminal illness to your child.
It was a blissful Sunday evening. My daughter Cameron, my boyfriend and I cuddled up watching a movie. Cameron had just returned from her weekend with her Dad, full of stories of exciting times and I was so happy to scoop her up and hug her close.
Then the telephone rang. Those telephone calls you fear, that bring awful news and an instantaneous drop of your heart: my mother had collapsed and was in hospital.
All I felt were flashbacks of when my father got ill, when I was pregnant with Cameron. Just five years before, I’d had that call then, and I was having it again.
Cameron and I visited my mom, during her month-long stay in hospital. Every time, Cameron would ask when her granny was going to go home; when she would get better, and made me check that the doctors knew that ‘Granny is special’.
I learnt to be really good at giving completely open-ended answers. We didn’t know, the doctors didn’t know and well, Granny didn’t know.
Yes, it’s cancer
When we got the news that it’s cancer, and that it’s terminal, we knew.
It’s not easy to explain terminal illness to a child at all. When telling Cameron that Granny would stay sick, that she’d be resting a lot and that she wasn’t going to get better, no matter how much medicine she had, I realised I was consoling myself too - trying very hard to come to terms with losing another parent to cancer.
Cameron’s questions about the disease abounded: What did it look like? Does cancer smell funny? Why do some people get better and others don’t? Why are there different types? Does that mean that there are different colours? For the record, I used a little poetic license and, yes, there are 7 different colours of cancer. Don’t sue me.
But the part that left the lump in my throat. The part that I am only now able to accept myself, mostly thanks to Cameron’s ingenious nearly-5-year-old wisdom, is the prospect of my mother’s inevitable death.
When I told Cameron that Granny was going to stay sick, and eventually, when the time came, go to Heaven, she went completely still and stared at me. Taking a moment to think, she then said,
‘Mama, that’s okay, she’s going to go to Jesus and Heaven and be with your Daddy. She’ll have fun with him!’
It was then that my wall burst, and I finally shed the tears that had been welling up for so long. Grief works differently for everyone, and I know I’m a great bottler of emotions. For Cameron, though, it just meant that Granny would be happy in Heaven. What more could a child want than for their mother to be happy, even if it meant they won’t see them anymore?
Giving a soft love
We’re in that in-between stage now, where my mother needs constant care and, as a family, we’ve pulled together. My siblings and I each do our part and the children in our family - my mother’s gorgeous, funny legacy - play whilst we try and tie up her affairs.
All the while, in the midst of grief of losing another parent, I am soothed by the logic of my favourite little person. Her resilience and courage keep me going in the face of heartache. And when she climbs on to Granny’s bed to give her a ‘soft love, mom, I promise I’ll just love her softly’, I know that, no matter what, my mother’s strength and softness flows through our family tree, and shines in her grandchildren.
How much should children be told when a family member is sick?