When it became apparent that the end was near for my dad, I did a little research into the grieving process as it manifests itself in mid-elementary school-aged kids and teenagers.
The last time we went down this road, Big Kid was a not-so-big-kid of six, and Little Kid was a mere eighteen months. Big Kid's reaction to the news that his dad's father had passed away was philosophical: "Well, I'm sad, but that's kind of selfish of me, because I know that Granddaddy is in Heaven, and he's with his parents, so he's probably really happy, and I should be happy for him."
And so he was.
I am told by my sister-in-law's mother, who was watching PJ in the waiting room while we were saying our goodbyes in ICU, that PJ looked skyward and let out a happy chortle of laughter at pretty much the exact moment that his granddaddy passed. Having always suspected that young children still have a hook-up with "the other side" (having so recently come from there), I am 100% convinced that this confluence of events wasn't coincidental. Pretty clearly, the kid was tuned in to something.
Years later, PJ advised that he remembered well "the day that we strapped Granddaddy to the top of Grandma's SUV and drove him to Heaven. It was me, Daddy and Grandma in the car, and we drove him to Heaven and then came back."
"Oh, you're right. I wasn't there. But you told me about it later."
This go-round, the Big Kid was provided with a heads up that we were approaching a crossroads. He only stayed in the denial phase for a split second before proceeding to bargaining: "Well, if his heart is failing, can't they give him one of those pacemaker things?" No, I explained to him as patiently, and gently, as possible. He wasn't healthy enough for surgery, for starters. And, if a device could resolve any of his issues at all, it couldn't eliminate the root cause of those issues. Notwithstanding that his tumors were actually on the retreat, the combined effect of cancer and chemo had nudged him into a downward spiral, and everything was contraindicated by something else: feed him what he needed to bulk back up, and his sugar would spike, or his kidney function would drop. Keep him on a diabetic/renal diet, and malnutrition would be the result. "Wasting" was the term that they used, and - realistically (and I was trying to be realistic for my child) - the process could not be reversed. We weren't talking about if, we were talking about when.
Within thirty six hours of this conversation, we had moved Dad to hospice and been handed the rather heavy piece of information that he might not make it through the night. We scrambled: everyone grabbed toothbrushes and pajamas, and Mom and I headed to hospice while Spouse and the kids bunked in with my grandmother. The next morning, Dad was still with us - and the Big Kid announced that he wanted to go to church, which I considered an incredibly healthy thing. I had already notified his youth minister of the situation, which turned out to be a mistake on my part, because C walked in, people reached out to him, and outreach was not what he wanted at that particular moment. On the way home from church, he announced to his father that he would not be attending his youth group's "Thrift Shop Prom" (only one rule: attire can't cost you more than ten dollars, inclusive of accessories) because he couldn't stand people being so nice to him.
At this point, I made one of those tough sandwich-generation choices and left hospice for a bit - checked in with my grandmother and Spouse (not so much because I was worried that he wasn't taking good care of her, but because I was worried that perhaps Spouse was feeling the need to kill her) and kidnapped the Big Kid for a half hour. We drove to our house, I took a much-needed shower, and we assembled his Thrift Shop Prom outfit (burnt orange skinny jeans - there's a story behind those that I will share at a later date - and a purple-sequined puffy pirate shirt that was part of Spouse's "pimp daddy" costume a few Halloweens ago).
"Mom, I don't want to go."
Fully understood. The first time my dad fought renal cancer, I was a freshman in college. He was diagnosed over Christmas break and had his kidney removed shortly after New Year's. I went back for spring semester unsure of how things would play out for him. The last thing I wanted to do was talk about my situation, but there they were - my well-meaning dormmates and sorority sisters. Some of them got it exactly right: "Hey, I'm here if you want to talk." Simple, to the point. Others were more awkward and tried to force me to talk about my feelings. Or touched me a bit too much. Or tried to draw parallels to events in their life that were not, even remotely, similar. Some planted their feet firmly in their mouths, Others were afraid to make jokes around me, and a few avoided me entirely.
It was agonizing. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it was also beautiful. Because it's very affirming to know that people care about you - even when that care is making you, kinda-sorta, miserable. So you have to take the attention in the spirit in which it is attended, and you have to shape it. Thank people (because, above all else, you should always be gracious), and then tell them what you need: "I appreciate your prayers, but right now I just need things to be as normal as possible."
Big Kid nodded. Then we talked about his granddad, and how the knowledge that his condition was making loved ones put their lives on hold made his situation seem that much worse. Granddad would hate the idea that C was missing a fun night with his friends because of him. (Another nod.) I opined that the one mistake that kids consistently make when a loved one is sick or dying is to assume that they are no longer allowed to have fun, or be joyous. Being joyous is not disrespectful.
"No, Mom, you're right - it's the opposite."
So Big Kid put on his wildly clashing shirt and pants, accessorizing with a pair of electric blue lace-up Vans. (With his then-still-shaggy hair, the overall effect was pretty Mick Jagger-ish.) Spouse was pulling out of the driveway with him when I made the call: Dad had just passed away. We decided that now was not the time to make an announcement. Big Kid was deposited at the door of the youth building.
An hour or so later, the text messages started to come in:
"Is everything okay?"
We considered our responses very carefully. Yes, everything is okay (because it was). Mom says to quit worrying and have fun - but if you can't have fun, call us, and we will pick you up early.
He stayed until the end of the event. He filmed (badly) his friends performing (slightly less badly) their version of the Harlem Shake. His youth director drove him home, based on arrangements that we had made in advance - so when we broke the news to him, she was there, and can I tell you what a huge blessing that was?
Little Kid got the news first, before his dad had had the opportunity to return from Prom drop-off duties. My mom and I arrived home at the same time, and - being pretty much in shock - my mom started disclosing details about what had happened to her own mother, so I made the executive decision to talk to PJ before he heard something that confused him. His responses, in order:
"Oh." [Oh, indeed.]
"Does my brother know?" [Gotta love sibling rivalry.]
"Maybe I should be there to help break the news to him." [Thanks, but we've got this.]
Over the next few days, he processed the information out loud, as I guess eight year-olds are wont to do.
"My granddad's dead." [Yup.]
"Now that you-know-who is dead, I don't have any grandfathers." [No, you still have them - you just can't see them. And, also, HE'S NOT VOLDEMORT. YOU CAN SAY HIS NAME.]
We have had some positive conversations since. Silver lining has been discovered: Granddad is no longer suffering, and Nana no longer has to drive him to two doctor's appointments a day. She will finally have the opportunity to visit the new herpetarium at the zoo, and see the elephant and the lemur that Granddad sponsored for her this last Christmas and the Christmas before. She can take advantage of the science and history museum charter membership that she and my dad purchased but never got to use.
Summer is coming, not a lot of structured activities have been planned, and that's okay - Camp Nana will be in full effect. With reciprocal therapeutic benefits for all.
And hopefully by then, PJ will deem it permissible to name He Who Shall Not Be Named.