When my daughter was one, we visited the resting place in Canada of her grandmother – my mother Janni Moss (above). She was too young to remember it or to fully understand what was happening, but it was an important day for me. My mother’s passing was the most significant turning point in my life. I was fifteen when she was sick, and sixteen when she passed away from complications from a bone marrow transplant to treat her cancer. The experience of that loss, and being witness to her fight for life when she was just forty-three, shaped me in many ways. I’ve missed my mother in multiple ways and in multiple moments since her passing, but I feel that I have never missed her more than when I had a daughter of my own and shared that new connection with her own life experiences. Showing my mother’s memorial to my own daughter for the first time was meaningful and I won’t soon forget that day.
About a year and a half later, in August last year, my dog Bogart passed away peacefully at home in his sleep. He was seventeen. That teary morning we buried him in the yard, sharing stories about Bo and our years together. He was a little fella, a white Maltese-Shitzu cross, and he used to stand his ground next to me and cough when he was jealous. He loved cuddles, and he hated traveling in the car so much that he’d hide under the seat. Bo had seen me through many highs and lows, many moves and life changes. He’d spent countless days and nights resting in the crook of my elbow while I wrote my novels. He was as good and loyal a canine companion as anyone could hope for. I’d been lucky to have him.
When Bo died my daughter was two and a half, older and more aware, and she spoke a lot about Bo after his death, sometimes in ways that were challenging. She asked me why Bo had died. She wondered why Bo was in the ground and if he would come back. She wondered if our other dogs would die and also go into the ground. As parents, my husband and I decided that we would not lie to her. We told her that Bo had been very old (roughly one hundred in human years), and that every creature dies, but that our other dogs, who were a lot younger, would not die for a long time yet. And we told her that when pets like Bo pass away, some part of them stays in our hearts.
Then she asked me, ‘Is Bo dead, like your mum is dead?’
It was hard to hear her make the connection, but I had to tell her that yes, my mother had died and now Bo had died.
In September this year a close friend of ours passed away unexpectedly. Martin Harrison had been instrumental in my husband’s life, as a poet, teacher, lecturer and friend. He had been there for many milestones. In recent years he had spent a lot of time at our house, chatting with us through long evenings over bottles of wine. We saw him only days before he died, and I remember every word of the conversation I had with him as if it was carved into me somehow. His optimism and spark had not diminished. Martin’s passing was a great loss to many, and our daughter saw the grief in us, and again, she had a lot of questions about death, particularly at the funeral and afterwards. We had made the decision that we would be as honest as possible about life and death with her, but now she was three and a half, more aware and more articulate, and the other question naturally came:
‘Mummy, will you die?’
I don’t want to lie to my girl. I can’t tell her we will never die, that I will never die. I could not do that. None of us lives forever. But I don’t want her to be unnecessarily distressed either. Kids read about death in fairy tales and books, and hear about death at home, at school, on TV. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is an easy one.
How do you talk to a three year old about death, without lying?
Every parent or friend of a child has a different way of dealing with difficult questions about life and death, but one of my friends, Richard James Allen, had particularly good advice that I found helpful: ‘You can tell her that you’ll be there for her for as long as she needs you,’ he suggested.
I thought about that. It was both reassuring and real. It felt true. It felt like something my mother could have said.
My mum battled against cancer for her daughters, and for her husband, and for herself, but the truth is she had already given us so much, and everything she had already given us, taught us, shown us, lives on in us. It lives on in me now. We can and should mourn the loss of the future moments we wanted to share, mourn the loss of the physical presence we miss so much, mourn the difficulties and pain, but we can also be grateful for the time we had and how much they gave us.
In our house, conversations about death come up a lot at the moment. It’s natural. And for now when my three year old asks me if I will die I tell her that I will because everyone does some time, but I promise her that I will be there for her for as long as she needs me.
I can see that my answer reassures her. She nods. ‘Okay mummy,’ she says, and she snuggles into bed with her cuddle toy. ‘I love you.’
I kiss her on the forehead and say, ‘I love you, too.’
* Helpful Links:
– Supporting Grieving Children, article from The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement. Helpful tips include acknowledging loss and allowing time to grieve, providing reassurance, and being aware of a child’s possible fear of abandonment.
* Books for Kids:
– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children, at Brain Pickings.
– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children and teenagers, at Booktopia, Australia.
– Books dealing with death and bereavement, for children and teenagers, at A Mighty Girl.
* Related Helplines:
– Parentline Australia 13 22 89
– Kids Helpline Australia 1800 55 1800
– Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement 1300 664 786
Photograph by Berndt Sellheim.