I’ve talked a lot in previous blogs about the impact Grace losing her mum has had on her, and was even asked to discuss it on BBC radio a few days ago, which you can listen to here.
Thankfully, as things stand, she seems to have taken things very well and although she clearly misses her mum, there haven’t been any obvious psychological effects on her and she remains a very happy and care-free three-year-old.
Despite that being the case, she’s still had to be told what has happened and just why the mummy that was a constant in her life since the day she was born is suddenly no longer around.
With Nicola having been ill for some time, there was at least some context to everything when it came to explaining things. Grace knew that Nicola was poorly and that she was in hospital a lot and that the doctors and nurses were trying to make her better, as doctors and nurses do. She’d got used to seeing Nicola ill in bed, knew that the ‘medicine’ had made her hair fall out and was used to Nicola going out and about in a wheelchair when her mobility became so affected.
However, given that for the last ten months of Nicola’s life she was terminally ill and we knew that eventually she’d succumb to the illness – and most likely whilst Grace was still very young – we’d had to decide how I’d approach it when the end finally came.
Nicola was very keen for me to assess things at the time, as it was hard to predict in advance just how things would develop and to what extent Grace will have been aware that her mummy was suddenly gone.
With Nicola having been in hospital for ten days, it was highly likely that no matter what we said to Grace, she’d still assume Nicola was there and indeed that proved to be the case for a few days after she died. After all, Nicola’s seizures and admittance to hospital for the final time all happened while Grace was fast asleep, and she was also at home asleep when Nicola died and I returned home, so there wasn’t a specific incident to which Grace could relate, which is perhaps thankful given something like witnessing the seizures could have traumatised her.
I decided I had to be quite frank with her. Using words like ‘died’ and telling her what cancer was played a part, mainly because I wanted to get across as much as I could that Nicola didn’t want to die, it wasn’t Nicola’s fault and above all it wasn’t Grace’s fault either. It was really important to ensure Grace didn’t feel like she’d done anything wrong or that she was in any way to blame for Nicola not being there.
To that end, telling her the news the morning after Nicola died was very difficult from my point of view. Inevitably, I was in tears trying to explain things and she saw I was upset and quickly wanted to ‘cuddle me better’. At the same time, she was trying to process what I was telling her.
Understandably, it perhaps didn’t register too much. I’d told her that the doctors and nurses couldn’t make Mummy better anymore and that she had died. There was, of course, the necessity to try and sugar coat things without telling her anything that might give her hope Nicola would one day come back, so explaining that Mummy was so special that she’d been chosen to go and be an angel in the sky was the first step towards that.
It’s an idea Grace likes the thought of and it’s now habitual for her to say goodnight to Nicola at her bedroom window every evening, insisting that whoever she’s with does the same! It’s heart-breaking, but at the same time a comfort – and not just to Grace. It’s this relative innocence that is usually a therapy to those around her at times like this.
It’s important not to overload her with facts. It’s also pointless given she can only take so much in – quite often I’ll be talking to her about it and she’ll swiftly go off and play rather than be bombarded with emotional chat.
Older children, depending on age, would pose different levels of understanding and may need more coaching through it all. At three, it’s often a case of dealing with the odd question or comment which can occur at random times and catch you off guard. Then she gets on with doing what she was doing.
Day to day, Grace mentions her mum here and there and we have plenty of photos and videos to cast our eyes over. As I’ve said in a previous blog, the videos in particular are difficult because the sounds of Nicola’s voice and laughter are immediately enough to have me pining for her, but for Grace it’s so important to keep those images and sounds fresh in her mind so I’m learning to go with it.
Time will tell just how much Grace will be affected by what’s happened. Nicola was always pretty sure that somewhere along the line, she’ll be affected one way or another by not having one of her parents around and whilst I am sure that’s true, it doesn’t mean we can’t minimise that impact effectively. After all, as hard as it is for us to accept, Grace will live a vast proportion of her life without Nicola so will adapt accordingly and far better than the rest of us might, particularly given how young she was when she lost her.
Having read various accounts by other people on how they’ve dealt with similar situations, it’s clear, as with the grief process as a whole, that there’s no right or wrong way to do things and no guidebook to follow. It’s all down to knowing your child and understanding how their mind works, as well as looking out for any adverse reactions and addressing any quickly should they occur.
I’m pleased that so far things have gone well on that front and whilst it’s true that the road ahead will be a tough one, Grace’s personality, the days out we have together and the memories we create to add to those she has of her mum, will all be crucial factors in ensuring she grows up relatively unscathed by the events that have cast a shadow over her early years.