“Mummy, why is Poppy still on the iPad?”
Oof, that’s a fun one for a Monday morning. G Major asked me this on the way to preschool this week, apropos of nothing.
She was asking why Dad’s picture is still visible when I log into my Skype account. And while I was organising my thoughts to explain about internet history and contact lists, she reminded me, “Because he’s dead.”
Erm, yes. Thank you, poppet.
Talking to kids about death is hard. The accepted advice is to be honest, to answer all their questions, to not use euphemisms that might confuse them. Saying the deceased has ‘gone to sleep’ pretty much guarantees your child will never go to bed nicely again.
So when Dad died, we explained that Poppy had a poorly heart and it stopped working. And that’s what happens when you get old. And that he had died, and that meant he wasn’t here anymore, and we couldn’t see him again. But we could remember him, and that was nice too.
So far so good.
But because I’m an atheist, I couldn’t share a message of going to be with God in heaven, or becoming an angel. And I certainly wasn’t going to say he became a star, because I ❤ science and that’s not how stars work.
But I also failed to account for the steely practicality of a small child. I’m glad I didn’t use metaphors, but I recognise there is something sweet about a small child sending a goodnight to her grandfather amongst the stars. Nothing quite prepares you for the cheerily matter-of-fact way a preschooler will tell you over breakfast, “Poppy died. And he’s never coming back”. It’s actually quite funny, if it didn’t leave me completely floored.
G Minor never met my father – I was 8 weeks pregnant when he died. And G Major doesn’t really remember him, although she recognises him in photos. Because I’m in the UK and my family are in Australia, there are limited opportunities for grandparents to see the Gs. Familiarity is all – G Major remembers the fire alarm going off in our old flat, but not Dad’s holiday in that same flat when she was 18 months.
Memories laid down before about 3 and a half tend not to stick around into adulthood, unless there is major trauma, so all I can do now is show the Gs pictures and videos of him, and talk about him, and about what Poppy and G Major did together. I want to give them a sense of their grandfather even if they can’t remember him. Ideally, they’ll have something more to say than a perky, “He’s dead.”
Which is much more useful than pretending he’s a star. And it’s why Poppy can stay on the iPad for a bit longer yet.