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How we broke the worst news to our three year old daughter

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Papa and Emily

How I wish my first post of the New Year could have been abound with optimism and joy! Unfortunately our Christmas ended with having to explain to my daughter that she won’t see her Papa again. I wanted to share my honest account of losing my dad in the hope that some of you will relate to it.  It would be wonderful to hear from any of you who have experienced something similar.

I went to visit Dad on 23rd December. He’d been diagnosed the previous day with anaemia. So I made him some spinach and kale soup to help his iron levels, he seemed to enjoy this and ate more than we expected. We chatted, then he wanted to show me some stupid comedy show. After a few minutes I grew bored and messaged my friends instead. How I wished I’d given him that half an hour to sit and laugh with him. I didn’t know this would be the last time I’d watch telly with him. The next morning, my parents insisted I head back to Durham to have Christmas with my husband and three-year-old, Emily.

Emily, my husband and I had Christmas day at home in Durham and drove down as planned on Boxing Day to see Granny and Papa. Dad had been admitted to hospital with an ‘ulcer’ in the early hours of Christmas morning.

My mum, brother and I arrived at the hospital that afternoon and were taken into a little room and told that in fact, it wasn't an ulcer as they had first thought. After more tests they had discovered Dad had very aggressive bone marrow cancer. Throughout his body, his bones had holes in them. He was obviously a strong man; the doctors couldn’t believe he had been away on holiday in his caravan with my mum just a few weeks before. We were told he had just days left to live.  

The following day, Emily came into the hospital to see her Papa. I guess this was more for me – I wanted her to see him one last time. By this point, my dad was fitted with a catheter, he had oxygen tubes going into his nose and a Platelets drip and multiple black bruises on his arms from blood tests. I’d already explained to Emily before going in that Papa was very poorly. She bounded in with her usual energy, oblivious to the poorly looking people in the ward and made a beeline for my dad. I decided if I made light of all the tubes then it wouldn’t make her feel scared so I made a joke of his ‘wee wee bag’ hanging next to his bed which she thought was fascinating! I then explained the orange looking liquid in the drip was his medicine, this was the plasma, his own blood couldn’t clot anymore so this intense dose may help stop him losing blood.

She climbed right up and gave him a big kiss and hug. I know my dad was pleased to see her, although he couldn’t have known that this would be the last time. My dad hadn’t been too bad that day as he’d had a blood transfusion that had perked him up. We made it light hearted and as normal as possible so that it wouldn’t be a negative frightening experience for Emily. That night I asked her what had been her favourite thing she’d done that day, she said “seeing Papa”. Oh how that hurt but felt wonderful at the same time.

Emily and Papa

My husband took Emily home the next morning whilst I stayed with my mum and brother. Dad continued to decline fast and just three days later he passed away. We were there with him in hospital.

My husband explained to Emily that Papa had died. At the age of three, we knew we’d have to explain a few times as death is a hard thing to explain to a little one – old enough to talk but too young to really understand.  I think he did a great job. He said very simply “You know Papa was very poorly and had to go into hospital? Well the doctors couldn’t make him better. He died and is now in heaven with the angels.” I’ve heard people talking about saying people have gone to sleep and didn’t wake up, but I was worried that might make her worry about going to sleep. Her response “Ok, can I have my cereal now please?” …She’s just three after all.

We are planning the funeral at the moment. I’ve decided that Emily won’t come to the funeral. I don’t want her to see me upset, I know I will be. I also don’t want to have to look after her. I want to just take the funeral in and be there for Mum. A friend of the family will have both Emily and her cousin and then bring them to the wake. Emily was keen to come to Papa’s ‘party’. I explained there will be pictures on the screen of Papa but he won’t be there as we won’t see him again. People may cry but also people will share stories about Papa so there will be laughter too. Emily still thinks it’s his birthday party and is really looking forward to it. I need to work on explaining the concept of a wake!

We are telling ourselves, we are lucky we had a few days together. To adjust and get used to the fact my dad was going to leave us soon. I told him I loved him the very morning he died, and he told me he loved me, all of us, very much too. Not everyone gets the time to do this. He reassured us, he didn’t have any pain. Considering how much was wrong and the doctors suspected more than one cancer, this is what you wish for. Whilst I’m sad and hurt, my mum has lost something much worse; her husband, her best friend, her lover. I wished we could have another few years, Emily would be older and would remember him better. I’d have more time for more photos, more hugs, more crap TV shows. But I guess, we all want more time, there’s never a right time. Death comes to us all, but we are so often surprised by it.

Dad had cancer for at least six months. Looking back, we can see the signs now. A rash on his skin that the doctors couldn’t figure out, excessive tiredness. Would it have helped had we known sooner? We doubt they would have been able to delay the inevitable as it was so aggressive. My dad fought it hard but couldn’t quite make it through Christmas as he planned. We would have known though that we needed those photos, those quality family moments.

Can we live life like it’s our last day every day? Can we be so engaged in everything? I’m hearing a lot about mindfulness at the moment, in everything you do – focus on this one task or person rather than multi-tasking. The other half of me says, you can’t live life scared that it’s always the last. My dad had terrible taste in TV, he would always watch the whole programme, even if he agreed by the end it was rubbish. So if I had watched that show and not rolled my eyes at Mum, then that wouldn’t have been me, our family life. His choice of TV was always a bit of a joke between us. So I guess my last evening at home with my dad was a normal one.

If I can offer any advice, I would suggest taking photos of grandparents with your kids. It’s for you, you will be the one to treasure it, and to show your kids “this was your Papa” so they don’t forget them. I’ve gone through my photos and wish I had more. This is my new year’s resolution for 2017. I make a calendar each year for the grandparents. Each month I choose a relevant photo from the previous year of Emily. I always like to include at least one of each grandparent but this time I realised I only had one I could use of Dad and I didn’t have any of Mum from last year. The photo of my dad is in February which means so much now. I will apply this resolution to the other grandparents too. In fact, I’ll take one with my Mum tomorrow!

Emily saw the first star appear in the sky and asked if this was Papa looking down from heaven but then just this morning asked me “Can I go on holiday with Granny and Papa in their caravan and will they take me to soft play please?”.  It’s going to take some time but that’s ok, I enjoy hearing her talk about him. It’s when I realise she’s stopped that it will be hard.

Emily and Papa


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  • We lost our darling Mum to cancer in September 2016 she was in hospital only one week… That last week was memorable for the whole family as we all got to spend precious moments with her.. Like you when we looked back we have all said if only…. She hid it really well but when looking at photos taken earlier that year you could see she wasn’t well.. The great grandchildren dealt with it really well. Last year we had a celebration and we had helium balloons which we had all the grandchildren let fly away with messages on. This is now going to be a regular thing.. Hugs to you and all your family..

    Trish on

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