My dad died just over a month ago, in the midst of lockdown. Even though he was sick, the events surrounding his death were fast and distressing. I hadn’t yet told my 4 year old that her Dad-Dad (grandad) was sick, because he didn’t appear sick or unwell. In the midst of a pandemic that this preschooler was struggling to understand, telling her he was sick seemed like undue distress. Besides, they talked over zoom daily and had a wonderful relationship and I didn’t want anything to change that or scare her. I may have made a mistake with not telling her, I don’t yet know, I’m still learning. What I do know for sure is dealing with grief in the midst of a pandemic was hard, and parenting through pandemic grief was even harder.
Right now in the world, millions of families are experiencing grief. Whether or not the death occurred as a result of COVID there are millions of people everywhere are suffering for different reasons, alone and cut off from friends and family. They have no concluding funerals, or memorials to bring closure. They are unable to hug their loved ones. These things are an important part of the grieving process. I can’t think of one culture the world over that doesn’t have a gathering of loved ones after someone dies? We’re neurologically set up to rely on our community, our family and friends to get us through tough times. And as parents, we’re already grieving the loss of our village, and now I need my village to help me grieve. Properly grieve – not the grief metaphor we’ve all been using to explain how we can’t go out to restaurants and have parties – the metaphor now makes me cringe.
My small talk lately across the yard with neighbours has been “the numbers”. We’d discuss the daily totals like it was simply just a statistic. The numbers have been shocking, and in many areas of the world still continue to be on a daily basis, but what we often ignore is that behind those numbers is real people. It wasn’t until I found myself floored by my own anger and sadness and unable to function that it occurred to me how many people must be struggling with this feeling while isolated. To me those daily numbers now simply represent terribly sad and scared people. How many children are dealing with a pandemic plus sick parents or the sudden death of a healthy parent? I can’t imagine.
I’ve tried my best to understand and manage my daughter’s unique grief and confusion while being haunted by my own painful, sinking feeling I just can’t shake (and probably aren’t meant to). My daughter experienced many classical traits of a grieving child (according to my desperate google searches) and many behaviours that were so out of character for her that I really struggled to deal with them appropriately. She started to struggle with sleep, and had temper tantrums like I’d never seen from her before. She needed to control her world, and while I understood that, coping with it was much harder.
Then there were the questions. Like any kid trying to understand death, it’s complicated and confusing, but now add in a global pandemic.
-Will I die if I don’t wash my hands?
-Did dad-dad not wash his hands?
-xxx has a headache, will she die?
-Will he be back when the big-germs are gone?
-Where did he go? Why did he die?
-Will daddy die?
These were tough to hear because I had my own questions and confusion about my dad’s death, and often felt angry about how differently our final day together would have been had we not been in a pandemic. It’s tough enough for me to understand, so I can only imagine hard it is for a preschooler to wrap their head around it. Listening to her questions initiated my fight or flight response and answering them felt like a maze I didn’t know how to navigate. I watched as many of my answers led to more questions and growing fears, and I felt confused and lost with what to do and say. After days and days of messy conversations that always led to tears, a tantrum or most often and shamefully, my own anger outburst, I finally started to figure it out (relatively speaking, we never truly figure it all out). But I began to add to my knowledge of what she was understanding and adapt my answers.
I taught my daughter about big sick vs. little sick. I used real terms and age appropriate honesty. No more “sick” that was too vague and allowed her to think of all the times she or I had been sick, and assuming it can lead to death. We spoke about “big sick” (cancer, stroke fatal illness) and I was finally able to explain to her that grandad got big sick (what I probably should have discussed back in the Fall) and we spoke about “little sick” which is a cold or headache, and that we can get better.
I made sure not to minimize her fears. I stopped saying nobody else will get sick, because unfortunately that’s not true and I can’t make that promise. Especially in a pandemic that even preschoolers aren’t unaffected by. What I explained was that we are doing everything we can to make sure everyone in the family stays as healthy as possible. That if we get “little sick” we will get better again very soon. If anyone gets big-sick, which is unlikely, then we’ll have the doctors and nurses do everything they know to help.
As she continues to ask about the why’s and the what for’s of life to be explained, I am starting to feel comfortable saying ‘I don’t know’ but I always follow up with the reminder that all living things eventually die. And when they do, we will not see them again. I tell her that it’s good to remember people we have lost and to talk about them. We talk about how it’s okay to feel sad, and how sometimes our feelings get mixed up and we feel angry (guilty). I am sticking with concrete information and honesty.
We are starting to feel a little more normal again, as normal as life in lockdown can be. We’re hoping that one day this summer we can get together with all the family (my mum and sister especially) and carry out the rituals we need to as a family. We will hug, and will likely mourn all over again, but together this time. I will crawl into bed with my sister and we’ll cry together. We will have a small ceremony. My daughter will attend, and she’ll likely express her grief again, this time with all the family. I now know that her seeing everyone express their feelings will help her deal with her own. We’re still figuring it all out and we have a long way to go.
I know that as everyday that passes we are getting better at managing these difficult life experiences (death, grief, isolation, a global pandemic). Life is about learning and adaptation and using these experiences to add to our repertoire of knowledge that helps us feel better.