“Mom, today I’m gonna wear the boots Papa gave me. They’re awesome. I’m gonna wear ‘em when he takes me hunting, too!”
That’s what my son said to my wife the morning after my father’s death, before we had told him what happened.
I’m still not sure how she didn’t break.
Far and away the most difficult task in the immediate aftermath of my dad’s death was having to tell my kids.
What will we say? And when? How much will we tell them? Will they understand it? Are they going to scream and cry? Is Anna going to be her stoic little self? Is this going to break Sam? Can we do this?
It was daunting, to say the least. On Monday night my wife called a counselor friend of ours who gave us great advice and we did our best to follow it. She said to tell the kids (Sam, 10, Anna, 9, Claire, 7) as far away from bedtime as possible, which ruled out Tuesday, so Julie and I prayed together Tuesday night and prepared to tell the kids Wednesday morning so we’d have all day to be together.
I awoke at the crack of dawn. I cried for a while and then just waited. When it was time for the kids to get up for school, we told them they could sleep a while longer, which they were happy about. Well, we told the girls; Sam was still asleep. When he woke up, he freaked out. “WHY IS EVERYONE STILL ASLEEP! WE’RE GOING TO MISS THE BUS!” Poor kid. After a while, I slipped into our bed where the girls had crashed and told them it was time to come downstairs. “You better have a good reason!” Anna said.
Oh, how I wish I had a better reason.
It’s kind of a blur how it started. We told them we had something very sad to tell them and that they would likely cry and that was ok. We told them that Papa was in Heaven now. We asked them if they knew what suicide was and I remember that Sam said yes, but I can’t remember about the girls. We reminded them about Papa’s surgery in July and how he was having a difficult time getting better. We explained that Papa got very sick and that his brain wasn’t working right when he did it. We told them he loved them very much and he was so proud of them. We told them how sorry we were. We told them that Jesus loves them and that we love them and that we will never do this ourselves. We told them to feel anything they wanted: sad, angry, confused… We told them to let it all out and to come to us any time, day or night, if they want to talk or just want a hug and to cry.
I held Sam and cried as he sat next to me and did the same. Claire buried herself into Julie as they cried, too. We asked Anna how she was and, true to form, she blurted out “I’m good” while hot tears streamed down her flushed face, a pile of used tissues in her lap. We expected that answer, but were happy to see her letting out her tears. At one point, Claire climbed into my lap and told Julie that she wanted her to take a picture. Julie and I looked at each other and asked her why. “I want to remember when I was really sad and that God made me happy again,” she told us. The faith of a child.
The rest of the day we cried and laughed, cried and laughed. Sam and Anna found it too difficult to share memories or to look at pictures, so we tried to do some normal things, like play games and watch TV. A couple times Sam slunk off to his room and when I checked on him he said, “I just need some alone time, that’s all.” I was and am so proud of him for how he’s been dealing with this.
We decided later in the day that we should all go to see my step-mom. We didn’t want the first time she saw the grandkids to be at the visitation and the kids were accepting of the plan. We went over that evening and I was a mess before we even got to the door. All three kids enveloped my step-mom in a hug as she wrapped her arms around them all, crying and apologizing. We moved to the couch where all four of them sat, crying quietly and comforting each other. It was incredibly difficult, but beautiful at the same time. Eventually the kids made their way downstairs and played pool and smiled and laughed. I’ll always be glad we did that.
The kids did amazingly well at the visitation. Beforehand we told them, “Now, at the visitation and the funeral, it’s highly likely people will cry when they see you. It’s not because you’re ugly. (giggles) It’s because they love you and they’re sad for you.” They understood. At one point Sam and I tucked a picture of ourselves into the casket for Papa to have. We talked about how we knew it was more symbolic than anything, but we still wanted to do it. Shortly before my mom took the kids home for the night, Julie took Claire up to the casket again. She wanted to see Papa. She asked if his legs were “under there” and Julie explained that, yes, his legs are under there and that later they’ll close the top part…”Wait. And we won’t see him again??” Claire asked. Then she lost it. She just really wanted to keep seeing him. So, I asked her if she wanted to write a note to Papa and leave it with him and she did. Then she carried around the program with his picture on it the rest of the time.
The kids did really well at the funeral, too. Sam wore the boots Papa gave him. I’m not sure we’ll ever get him to wear anything else, now that I think about it. I said some words about my dad to those gathered at the funeral and the only time I really started to cry I looked right at Sam. He smiled at me through his tears and that helped. We had lunch at the church before going out to the cemetery and it was so nice to see all the kids who were there playing together. My cousin’s little boy, HUDSON, kind of stole the show, but the hair-braiding train was adorable, too.
Telling my kids about the sudden, unpredictable death of their Papa was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. In retrospect, I think it went as well as it could have. My kids are amazing. Like, scary amazing. My mom said that after she took them home from the visitation, the kids were sitting around the dinner table coloring. “I want to go to Heaven and see Papa right now,” Claire said abruptly. There was a pause and then Anna said, “Someday you can, Claire, but not right now.” They went back to coloring when Sam added, “And if you want to cry, Claire, you can. It’s ok.”
Ok, Kleenex break…