One minute he was here, full of life, and the next he was gone. I never got to say goodbye
April 22nd, 2009 is a day that will be etched in my mind forever. It was a Wednesday – beautifully sunny – and the day my husband died. He was 34. Martin suffered a catastrophic heart attack while away with our three-year-old son Alex for a father-son bonding weekend. No warning. No previous symptoms. No family history. One minute he was here, full of life, and the next he was gone. I never got to say goodbye. I was at home, 165 miles away, feeding our 11 months old daughter Olivia and excitedly waiting for them to return. But he never did. All of a sudden I was a young widow and a single parent to two grieving children under four – in total shock.
From the start, I knew I wanted to be completely honest with my children. I knew I had to tell them that their daddy had died. Knew I had to use age-appropriate language. But how could I explain to a three-year-old that his daddy could never come back? If I said: “He’s gone to a better place”, Alex would worry about what he had done wrong for his daddy to want to go away. If I said: “He’s gone to sleep”, he would worry about both himself and others going to sleep. If I said: “He’s gone to work”, I might appease him for a little while, but it wouldn’t be helpful in the long run, as I would still eventually have to explain why Daddy wasn’t coming home – and I might even lose his trust in the process…
So I spent the four-hour drive thinking about what to say. When I finally got there, Alex saw me straightaway and shouted: “Oi! No girls allowed! What are you doing here, Mummy?”, instantly followed by: “Is Daddy coming back in a minute?”
And there it was. My cue to start one of the most difficult conversations of my life. I knew I had to say what I had come up with in the car, here and now, or it would never come out. I knelt down in front of him, gently put his head against my chest, and asked him if he could hear anything. “I can hear a funny ‘bump, bump, bump’”, he said. I nodded, and went on to explain that he could hear the sound of my heart. “Everybody has got a heart”, I explained. “When it stops beating, your body doesn’t work any more, and you can’t walk or talk or wear little boys on your head any more. That is what happened to daddy’s heart. Daddy’s heart stopped beating, and he died. He can never come back.”
It didn’t sink in. And how could it?!... A three-year-old doesn’t yet understand the word ‘death’, or ‘dying’. They don’t even know that such a thing exists! People had been telling me that children of that age were ‘too young to understand’; that they ‘would just forget’. But Alex asked me question after question – not just in the following days, but in the following weeks, months and years. Still aged three, he asked me such questions as: “Will you have to die, Mummy?”, “How many more sleeps until I have do die?” and “What happened to daddy’s body?”…
I tried to find a children’s book that would explain what death is, so we could sit down and read it together, but no matter where I looked, I couldn’t find anything appropriate. And I couldn’t understand why. After all, we all have to die, right?!...
I set out to write my own, and with a lot of persistence, determination, and the amazing support of a lot of wonderful crowdfunders, I published “Is Daddy Coming Back in a Minute?” in 2012, closely followed by “What Happened to Daddy’s Body?” in 2014. These fully-illustrated children’s books explain gently, yet honestly and in age-appropriate language, what death is, and what happens to the body after death – written from the perspective of three-year-old Alex.
I, just like every other parent on the planet, want to protect my children from harm – be it physical, or emotional. But, no matter how hard we try, we can’t protect them from everything – I couldn’t protect them from this: their daddy had died, and it was up to me to help them understand what had happened. That he didn’t chose to leave. That they hadn’t done anything wrong to make this happen. That it wasn’t their fault.
And, crucially, that it is okay to feel sad and to cry, but that it is also okay to feel happy, too.
Elke Thompson is a young widow, mum and step mum to seven children, breast cancer survivor, author, speaker and creative.
You can find out more about her and her work on her website www.elkethompson.com