A couple of weeks ago, my father-in-law died unexpectedly. As you can imagine, it’s been a tough time for everyone, especially my wife and her family. One of the very few benefits of having had only one grandparent (who died when I was aged five) is that my own experience of loss is relatively small. Certainly nothing like what Laura is going through now. It’s been a dreadfully impotent feeling. A mixture of being desperately sad for her, sharing her grief and trying to help in whatever small way I can.
Of course, amidst all this are the boys. Both, really, are too young to fully realise what has happened. Dylan, at 5, has some understanding of the fact we won’t see Grandad again and is processing it in his own way. But Nathan, at 2, is to all intents and purposes oblivious. On our first trip to visit Laura’s mum afterwards, I spent several minutes in the car trying to explain that Grandad wouldn’t be there, that he was now somewhere he didn’t feel ill, and that we must instead try to think about all the fun things we did with him. Not especially eloquent but, I hoped, effective.
As we walked through the door, a little voice piped up: “Where’s Grandad?” I’d been wasting my time.
Yet should I really have been surprised? How can you explain death to a toddler? There are loads of books out there and no doubt lots of far cleverer people than me have tried. But the answer, as far as I can tell, is you can’t. Their lives are just too immediate, too short-term, too gloriously trivial for them to be interrupted by as nebulous and inaccessible concept as dying.
‘Grandad has died’ is simply ‘Grandad’s not here to throw me over his shoulder and shout Ba Ba Boof today, oh well, maybe he’ll be here next time’. ‘Grandad has gone’ translates as ‘Grandad’s somewhere else’. And ‘Gran is upset’ is, well, a brief concern but no doubt she’ll be OK again in a minute.
It’s fortunate and tragic all at once. On the one hand, how lovely to live in such a naïve place that bad news, the worst news, is no more than a passing gust of wind. But at the same time, how terrible that something so important, so fundamental to our life, can be ripped away without you really noticing. How unjust that, beyond photos and stories, Nathan probably won’t remember a warm, generous, doting man who loved him dearly.
As you can imagine, this has been a hard post to write – and I have no real answers to give or conclusions to draw. Maybe it’s all still too current, maybe I’m not smart enough, maybe it’s impossible, probably all three. Death of a loved one is shit. It hurts and it makes people you care about unhappier than you’ve ever seen them. Trying to manage that grief whilst looking after young children who need a brave face from mummy and daddy is immeasurably hard, undeniably sad – and a total tonic.
In fact, if there is one tiny chink of light here it is that perhaps, in a small way, we can all take a lesson from young children. These mini beings who think life is just a thing we all do forever – and simply get on with getting on with it. For whom both everything and nothing is a distraction. Who don’t waste time on stuff they can’t comprehend. And who are, for want of a less clichéd phrase, the way the rest of us live on long after we’re gone.
As Grandad himself said last year: “there’s no bucket list but that doesn’t stop me wanting to live forever.” Even though they might not know it yet, the boys are the ones who are going to help him do it.