Guest blog by Georgina Lucas, author of If Not For You and mother to Finn, Grey and Bear.
A few months before his fourth birthday my oldest son, Finn, crawled into my bed. "Can we look at pictures of Grey, Mummy?” he said. Grey is his little brother, my middle son. He died when he was 3 weeks old, Finn was 18 months old. It wasn’t an unusual request, we often talk about Grey and sometimes Finn likes to look through the pictures of his life. Today was a little different: “Can I see pictures of Grey, dead, Mummy?’ He looked me straight in the eye, then continued to hold my gaze while I combed my mind for the advice we’d been given by people who know far more about this than I do. Was it ok? A Sunday morning looking at pictures of his dead sibling? I decided I couldn’t say no.
I found the photos and showed them to him. “He looks the same,” he said, running his finger over the phone, “except you can see his mouth, Mummy,” he smiled, “– his lips are really, really small.” Grey spent most of his life on a ventilator, his tiny cupid’s bow masked by taping. It reminded me that sometimes reality is gentler than an almost-4-year-old’s wild imagination.
“Where is Grey?” he asks. “I don’t know,” I admit. Is he nowhere? Maybe everywhere? Where has he gone? Why did he die? Why can’t he come back? Why don’t some people live for a long time? His questions are my questions, and I don’t have answers.
Well, maybe some literal scientific explanations, but not the life-death-existence ones. How do you speak to your child about something you can’t understand? That feels impossible to accept? I’ve spent 3 years trying to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense – can I admit that to my son?
I didn’t expect death to be woven into the fabric of my parenting, I’m sure no one ever does. And then Grey died. In the hazy fug of the immediate aftermath, I remember the Sands booklet being pressed into our hands, my mum scouring the internet hunting for advice on how to talk to children about death. Our new normal. ‘Say death, dead, died,’ everything said, ‘avoid euphemisms, be as open and honest as you can and be prepared to answer the same questions again, and again, and again’.
Finn came to Grey’s funeral, his warm hand squeezing mine as we walked into the crematorium. He sang twinkle twinkle little star with his cousins as Grey’s tiny wicker coffin rested on the catafalque.
Together they blew sticky kisses towards the altar and pressed irises against the woven top, then ran into the courtyard, squealing in delight at the lily pads in the pond. Death, with its extraordinary power to rip us apart, amongst such life.
Finn was really just a baby when Grey was born, they were both so small when he died that the sadness of his tiny brother’s death is mostly a fact rather than a feeling to him. Grey lives so vividly in my memory, Finn remembers him through photos. Though I know he feels his absence, thankfully it isn’t in the same cataclysmic way that I do. I am scared of burdening him with the weight of my pain, but I try to let him see me cry, my therapist assures me that this is important. He has been swept along in the wave which crashed through our lives, he walked with us as we picked our way through the fragments of before, trying to assemble some kind of after. For two thirds of his life we have been rebuilding from the foundations.
Small children change subjects suddenly and often, it is no different when they talk about death. Many of my discussions with Finn about Grey have been headed off at a critical moment by non-sequiturs ‘can we have porridge for breakfast? Why doesn’t papa like ketchup? Why do dogs lick their bottoms?’ The gear change still takes me by surprise, particularly if it comes at a poignant moment, but it is a reminder that life is messy and death is part of it. I can’t fence it off into a neat box and open it and shut it when it’s convenient.
Sometimes practical questions blindside me. For a while he was convinced Grey must still be in hospital – after all, we hadn’t offered him a reasonable alternative. ‘Did they run out of medicine?’ ‘Did they run out of bandages?’ and the devastating ‘Why didn’t you make him better, mummy?’ How can I affirm his vital faith in the world while he grapples to accept that sometimes we can’t save people, that lives are not always long, that nothing is certain.
I want him to always know he can ask whatever he wants. We discuss the same questions time after time, his developing brain synthesising the information as we both try to untangle it. Together, we are learning to accept that some questions don’t have answers.
“Is Bear going to die too, Mummy?” He asked when his littlest brother was about 3 months old.
“I hope not,” I said. “It’s very rare for babies to die.”
“But Grey died, Mummy.” He did. “Is Daddy going to die?” “Who will be my daddy when Daddy dies?”, “Are you going to die?” As I reassure him, I have to fight a natural instinct to promise him we won’t die, but I know I can’t and I think he knows it too. “Some people don’t have time, Nana,” he told my mum once. “Grey didn’t have time”.
I’ve overheard Finn telling Bear about Grey: “We do have another brother, Bear” he says, using the special soft voice he reserves for serious conversations. “He did die, it is very sad, but he’s still our brother, he’s still Mummy and Daddy’s baby.”
Please hold on to that compassion and empathy my darling, I think. A beautiful, terrible gift from your brother.
Like life, parenting is joyful, infuriating, magical, confusing, wonderfully mundane and, sometimes, impossibly hard. I have no idea if I’m doing this right. If there even is a right. Sometimes I wake up in the night and wonder if I’m messing him up by doing it wrong. One thing I know is that he is teaching me more than I could ever teach him. I will always remember the conversation I had with Finn on the first anniversary of Grey’s death. Mike had run a marathon in Grey’s memory.
“I miss Grey, Mummy,” he’d whispered as he hugged me before bed.
“I miss him too,” I replied.
“Daddy ran with Grey, Mummy” he said.
“He did, he ran for Grey.’ I said.
He paused, looking me straight in the eye: “One day we’ll all run with Grey, Mummy.”
He’s right, of course, the only thing that’s certain is we’re all going to die. If my oldest and youngest boys live as long as I hope they will, many people will die. Nothing can stop the earth-shattering devastation when it inevitably comes. I only hope as they grow up the world will be as willing to talk about it as a 4 year old Finn.