Explaining the unexplainable

The holiday season is one that is supposed to be merry and bright, full of laughter and love and good cheer.
Sometimes, however, life has other things in store for us. It is forever a revolving door, a freight train- and the most you can do at times is hope to move out of the way or get the hell off before it crashes.

Last night I was in the salon getting my hair done, dye on my head and blow-driers on full blast in the background when my phone started ringing. A number I didn’t recognize (i’ve been slacking at updating my contact list since switching phones). Not that I could answer anyways, in the position I was in, so I pressed ignore. Two seconds later it calls back again. I find this odd, I press ignore yet again. I then get a message from facebook from my cousin saying to call my aunt immediately. I respond that I can’t, as I am in an appointment, and ask what is going on.
“just message me when you get home”

I knew immediately this was not good. Either I had done something SERIOUSLY wrong, or someone had died. That is the only time getting a hold of me is this important.

It’s one of the very few moments in life that you HOPE to be in trouble. You’d rather be scolded, cursed at or argue rather than the alternative.

A few hours later, after I finally walked in the door, sat down and had something to eat, the phone call came in.
No, I wasn’t in trouble, I hadn’t done anything wrong.
The flood of calls and messages to get a hold of me was to tell me that my Aunt Susan, my mother’s sister had passed away earlier that day.

I broke down immediately. It felt like a kick to the stomach. I knew she had been sick, just like I knew my mom had been sick, and just like I NEVER saw my mother’s death coming, I didn’t see this coming either. It felt as though I was reliving that nightmare all over again, losing someone I loved so much so unexpectedly.

My (other) aunt tried to talk me down, she had been very sick and now she wouldn’t be suffering, but as we talked I realized something: I would have to tell Holden.

His Auntie Susan, the one who helped make his (and our family’s) Disney dreams come true, the one who he can’t stop talking about going back to see, the one who loved my little boys like they were here own grandchildren, is gone… and I have to be the one to break the news to him.

How do you explain death to a 4 year old? Should you even try? Will they be able to grasp it enough to make it worth the pain of trying to make sense of it to them?
We have lost one person since Holden was born, my Grandmother, when he was 3 weeks old, and since then have been lucky enough to not lose anyone else. It’s never something, other than fish in his fishbowl and bugs that i’ve begged him to smash for me, that we’ve ever had to try and explain. Even Disney movies, where death seems to run rampant, I can’t seem to explain it to him in a way where I walk away knowing that he understands; and those aren’t real people, just animated characters.

I couldn’t stand the thought of breaking his heart if for once it actually did sink in, but I also couldn’t bear the thought of him asking me when we were going to go back to see his Auntie Susan in Florida and have to shoot him down on the spot.

I had to tell him, I knew I had to, but I needed to find the right way to do it. We are not religious, he hasn’t learned anything about heaven or angels or the afterlife. He knows that things die, but does he REALLY understand what that means or where they might go afterward? Even if I don’t believe in anything, I have to have something to make it tangible to him, give him something other than “well, she’s not here anymore”- then where is she? A small child can’t understand that, and I can’t expect him to.

Last night I didn’t sleep well at all, and I woke feeling sick. Lack of sleep, the sore throat that had already been forming, and a sense of dread.

After breakfast, I got Holden dressed and then held his hand as we walked downstairs. I pulled the framed picture of my mother off the top of the bookshelf and had him sit beside me. We had had conversations in the past about my mother and that she was not with us anymore, though I didn’t know if he’d remember.
“Do you know who this is?”
“That’s Grandma”
“And do you remember where Grandma is?”
“All the way at Grandaddy’s house”

I had the pleasure of reexplaining my mother’s passing to him in the simplest way I could. She passed away before you were born, she’s an angel now, and she’s looking down on you. She’s not here, but she’ll always be looking down on you and making sure that you are ok.

I then pulled out the photobook we’d made from our trip to Disney, the only time he has ever met his Auntie Susan (outside of my grandmother’s funeral at 3 weeks old), and flipped to the pictures of them together.

“Who is this?”
“Auntie Susan at Disney”
“Well you’re Auntie Susan is an angel now too. She was very sick and yesterday she died”
“She died?”
“Yes. She was very sick, and we are very sad, but she isn’t sick anymore, and she’s looking down on you right now”

He had a lot of questions, understandably, and it didn’t seem like my explanation had helped it to make sense to him.
Holden wanted to sit down and go through the entire photobook, page by page. I agreed, and when we got to the page of the pictures of my Aunt, he pointed and said
“That’s Auntie Susan, she’s an angel now”

Even if he doesn’t understand what that means exactly, I think that’s good enough.
I am sad, and my heart hurts, but I am glad to have the memories with her that I did, and even more glad that the boys got to meet her.
I have learned that there is no easy way to explain death to a child, or anyone really, and perhaps we shouldn’t force it at all- in this situation I had to make the decision as a mother to tell him because of how much he loved her, and he deserved to know, even if he couldn’t understand yet.

I hope you are resting in peace Aunt Susan, we all miss and love you very much

Posted on December 2, 2011 by Holdin' Holden 6 Comments
Holdin' Holden

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  • My thoughts are with you and your family at this time. It is a hard truth to tell to a child, we experienced just that when my Mother In Law passed away. Hugs to you.

  • I enjoyed reading your blog, even though it made me cry and it was my first blog I have had to chance to read by you. I hope you and your family are doing as well as can be in this time of dispair and even though you are not religious I want to tell you that I am praying for you and your family. My heart and prayers are with you and I want to say that you did an great job of explaining to your son because I can only imagine the pain and hurt it took to explain to Holden what had happened to his Aunt Susan 🙁
    sincerly, A.Happy.Mommy 🙂

  • I am very sorry for your family’s loss. explaining death to a child is never easy to do. 3 weeks ago I had to tell my 6 year old that his Grandma, my Mom, had died. He knew she had been very sick, but that did not make it easier. May your Aunt Rest in Peace. My love and prayers for you all.

  • As i sit here wiping away tears i remember to well the seamingly countless times over the past 14 yrs having to explain to my children the family has lost a love one. This year both my grandmother and grandfather, along with their dads grand father have past. I to still till this day tell them they have another angel looking down upon them. You did a wonderful job telling Holden. My heart and prayers go out to your family and loved ones in your time of dispear!

  • Here I am at a seriously boring day of work reading and laughing away, then wham! I read this, my Aunt died 2 years ago this season, it brought back a lot of memories and the memory of having to tell my then 9yr old daughter her Aunt had died.
    Its always nice to know, I’m not the only one trying to explain all these things to small people!

    Thank you

  • Aww Sweetie, I am so sorry to hear. I can see why he adores her! She looks like a blast! No one can ever take away memories! Blessed be )o(