“WHEN SHE WAS FIVE”
LONGBOAT KEY, FLORIDA
She was five years old. Five was a wonderful age. Not just because she was starting to understand a lot of things but mostly because she had begun to understand most of the answers to her questions. It used to be that she would ask an adult a question and most of their answers either didn’t make sense or were too long to be worthy of her attention.
The thing she liked “bestest” about being five was that it was so easy to just hold up one hand with all of the fingers extended when someone asked how old she was. She used to have to fold some of the fingers down but now she had reached a sort of milestone where she could easily, and quickly, hold up her hand and show the world how many years she had.
It was such a wonderful new experience to be able to hold up five fingers, even before someone could ask how old she was. The only confusing part was that a lot of the time, when she would hold up her five fingers, other people would wave at her. Everyone seemed so friendly and now she didn’t even have to wait for them to ask her age.
When I met her she said “Guess how old I am?” I took a good look at her and guessed “Five?” She literally beamed and, looking up at me replied “I guess I really do look like I’m five!” “Everyone seems to know that I am five!”
She would stand quietly by her grandfather’s hospital bed when she was allowed in to visit. She knew that he was very sick and he couldn’t speak to her but, in her own private way, she knew that he would get better and things would go back to normal. She knew that it was just a matter of time before she could crawl up on his lap and feel as though everything was perfect. He was her favorite of all of the grown-ups. He always made her laugh, even when she was upset about not getting her own way. She really wasn’t spoiled but she just knew that he “loved her the most”. Mom and Dad loved her too but Grandpa had a special way of making her feel loved, even when she had been naughty.
It wasn’t easy to stand quietly by his bed during the visits. She knew that she could talk to him (in her inside voice) but she wasn’t allowed to touch him because of all of the wires and tubes. Mom said that she might make him sicker if she touched the wrong thing. One day she did get to hold his hand for a minute. She kept expecting him to close his fingers around hers but his fingers were cold and unmoving.
Mom explained to her that some of the people that came into the room and touched Grandpa were nurses. They were allowed to touch him because they were doing things to make him better.
Her favorite nurse was Ayleen. Ayleen was always smiling, talked to Grandpa like she knew him and he could hear her and she even combed his hair for him one day. She got to touch Grandpa as if he was her Grandpa too!
“I think that nurse loves Grandpa” she said to her mother one day as they were leaving the hospital. “She treats Grandpa the best”. “Yes she does”, mom answered, “She is doing everything she can to make Grandpa feel better”.
How do you tell a child that someone close to them is not coming home? How do you tell a child that someone they love is going to die? How do you tell a five year old about death?
I know there are books you can read and there are many theories about how to handle this delicate situation but when you are faced with it yourself there are no definitive answers. How can you see through your own grief and your own confusion to explain to someone, especially a child, what happens when someone dies.
I’ve sat with hundreds of patients and family members over the years, trying to help them navigate through their grief. It’s a treacherous journey particularly since there is never any perfect thing to say. There is no “perfect formula” for assuaging grief or making sense of tragedy.
When Caylee was four She still had to tuck one finger into her palm and say “this many years”. She was the epitome of precocious; smart beyond her years and surprisingly intuitive for someone her age. When I met her, at her fifth birthday party, I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She answered “a grandmother!” “Wow”, I said “what made you decide that?” “Because I want to be just like my grandmother was before she went to heaven. She went to heaven and my grandpa is getting ready to go there to be with her. I miss her and so does grandpa. but we always talk about the funny things she used to do to make us both laugh.”
“Well, I think you’d make a wonderful grandma someday” I said. Without skipping a beat she replied “Yup, my grandma was the best and I’m going to be just like her." She looked up at me and giggled and said “If I was a boy I would want to grow up to be a grandpa.”
Social Services called me in the middle of a rainy afternoon. Knowing that I had worked closely with this family, over the years, they wanted to know if I could meet them at the hospital as “grandpa” was near death. Caylee would be going to see him to say “goodbye”.
When I arrived at the hospital I met with the family in a small meditation room. Caylee was out walking in the halls with one of her aunts.
I sat and talked with the family. Obviously they were grieving but, as adults, they understood the aging process and were able to process the impending death. Their concern was with Caylee. She knew that her grandpa was sick. She even talked about the fact that he was going to go to heaven to be with grandma but they still weren’t certain how she would react when he finally passed.
I talked with them about the resiliency of children in situations like this. I explained that there was no definitively scientific way to approach the subject with her but the important thing was to remain calm and allow her to express her grief in her own way.
After discussing different options I suggested that perhaps I should speak with Caylee privately and try to evaluate what she was feeling. When she returned, with her aunt, I asked her if she would like to go and see her Grandpa. “Yes, yes, I want to see him, let’s go”. So we headed off, hand in hand, down the hall to his room. We walked into the room and the nurse Ayleen was there. I could tell from her expression that the time of his passing was very near.
Caylee approached the bed and softly said “Hello Grandpa, are you sleeping?” I stood off in a corner and just let the scene play out. I knew that it was best to just let her say goodbye in her own way.
The nurse, Aylene, was busy removing some of the tubes and wires and cleaning up the room. Caylee turned to her and said, “Is Grandpa gonna wake up and talk to me?” Aylene turned to her and said “No sweetie, Grandpa is getting ready to fly to heaven to be with your grandma”.
I watched to see what dynamics would unfold and noticed that tears had come to the little girls’ eyes. “But, but…Grandpa hates to fly” she said. “He said he would never, ever get on an airplane!” I felt a hitch in my breath and listened as Aylene said “Well, that’s ok, we’ll just put him on a bus. Would that be better?” A smile broke out on Caylee’s face and she answered “Oh, yes…can you do that…please? He is afraid of airplane flying and he always used to love to take the bus when he came to visit us.”
I watched Aylene bend down and take Caylees’ hands in hers. “I’m going to clean your Grandpa up and get him ready for his bus trip and you can help me if you want to.” Together they gently washed the old man’s face, combed his hair and when they were finished they both stood back and looked at the man who used to be "Grandpa". “He looks really nice. I’m sure Grandma will be very happy to see him,” Aylene whispered.
After a few moments Caylee walked over to me and took my hand and said “Let’s go tell Mommy and Daddy that Grandpa has gone to heaven.”
We walked down the hall, hand in hand. She had a skip in her walk and a smile on her face. “I’m gonna miss grandpa” she said, “but he’s gonna be with Grandma again so I’m real happy”.
When we walked back into the waiting room Caylee ran across to her parents and jumped into their arms. “Mommy, Daddy the lady ALIEN and me got Grandpa ready to go on the bus to Heaven!”
I spoke with her parents weeks later and, despite the gravity of the situation we all shared a tearful chuckle as they told me that Caylee spent several days running around telling anyone who would listen that she had “helped an Alien put grandpa on a bus to Heaven.”
Let the children teach us how to explain death!
© Copyright 2017 GeorgePetrie. All rights reserved.
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