How do you explain…

RRH slideshow_0081…death to a three-year-old? A week or so ago, my mum was visiting from Australia and overheard me trying to explain to my daughter why the fly on the windowsill couldn’t fly away. I said it got old, had finished living and now it was dead.

My bubble frowned, then looked suspicious.”What dead?”

“It went to sleep forever,” I said. “It lived as long as it could, and then it got so tired that it went to sleep. Now it’s gone and it can’t wake up anymore.”

Bubble didn’t understand. “Why did it dive, Mummy?” she asked.

“No, sweetie, not dive, die.”

Ella with her Great-GrandparentsMy mum, who was listening from her seat at the dining table where she was battling with another round of Solitaire on her iPad, laughed and told me I was getting into dangerous waters. But I ignored her, determined to make my point.

You might ask why it should be so important to teach a three year old about a dead bug. It’s because I knew it was about to get a lot more important than bugs on the windowsill; less than a week later, my daughter’s Great Papa passed away after a very recent cancer diagnosis. I didn’t want to introduce her to the concept of death while I was grappling with it myself. I knew it was coming, and I wanted her to hear the word without tears attached before she had to hear it through a torrent of them.

What was especially hard is that Bubble has only met her great grandparents a few times. We took her to Australia when she was about six months old, and again last Christmas when she was two and a half. She played in their backyard, just as I did as a little girl. She rode on the various contraptions her Great Papa had created in the yard, some of which had been there for more than thirty years. She measured herself on the doorframe that is still marked up with over thirty years of my growth as well as that of my cousins and brother; Bubble was one centimetre taller than I was at the same age. She watched her daddy climb the giant gumtree in the backyard that I fell out of when I was about twelve, (which, to my horror, my brother caught on video); there was always a video camera handy at Papa’s house, even in the 80s. But she was only two and a half, and even six months later, the memories are already fuzzy for her.

So when I tell her Great Papa died, and Mummy is sad, all she wants to do is make me happy again.

“Maybe we can go in the car and Daddy can drive and we can rescue Great Papa. Then you can be happy again.”

“No, sweetie. Great Papa died. We can’t see him anymore.”

“I’ll get you my blanket, Mummy. That will make you happy again.”

Off she trots to get her white blanket with the satin edging. The one she cuddles extra tight when she’s scared or upset. Just like the yellow one I had when I was little. When she gives it it to me, and kisses me on the cheek, I smile and force my tears away. There’s only so much grief a little girl can handle seeing when she doesn’t understand why we can’t just get in the car and go rescue Papa.

This morning when we woke up she asked me if I was still sad. I nodded.

“Because you miss Great Papa?”


“Because he died?”


“Why?” Yeah, she’s at that age.

“Because he was very old, and then he got sick. He lived a long time, and his body got very, very tired, so he went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”

“Maybe he should see the doctor.”

Some tears escaped at this point. “He did see the doctor, baby. But this time the doctor couldn’t help. But it’s okay, Great Papa lived for a very long time, and he had a happy life. Now he can rest.” More tears.

Bubble stroked my cheek and said, “Don’t worry, Mummy. I’m here.” She’s lovely like that.

Unlike her Australian cousins, she won’t be in a position to miss her Great Papa the way they do. She talked to him once in a while on Skype, and we show her pictures all the time, but looking at these pictures, it’s hard even for me to believe he’s really gone. It was the same when my mum’s parents died; I’m not there to notice them missing from all the family events, I don’t drive past their house and wonder who lives there now, and this time I won’t even get to go to the funeral. I have to say my goodbyes from the other side of the world.

I have no intention of labouring the point with my daughter. It’s upsetting for her to see her mother crying, and I’m doing my best to expose her to as little of it as possible. But I won’t hide it entirely. I want to teach her that death is a part of life, and to understand that it’s even more important for us as an expat family to keep thoughts and memories of the people we love alive and present in our daily lives. We never know when we will see our Australian family again, but I can do my best to teach her to keep them in her heart so she always has some access to them.

Papa Anzac Day 2013

Anzac Day 2013, 92 years old

Memories of Papa

You were the cheekiest grown-up I have ever known. I never knew whether you were winding Grandma up to make us laugh, or to amuse yourself. Probably both. Once, when I was about eight and we were staying at the shack, you came in from fishing, dripping seawater and sand all over the kitchen floor. Grandma gasped, then shrieked, “Ray! What are you doing in here dripping like that?”

You gave me a conspiratorial wink and said, “Dripping like that.”

Grandma threw her hands up in exasperation. As always. We laughed. As always.

Whenever I slipped, fell down, or fell off something, you would always say, “Did Gravity get you, did he?” Gravity was an invisible person, lurking around every corner of your house, waiting to get me. You always warned me about him, that tricky fellow.

You were the first man I ever waltzed with, even though I had to stand on your shoes to keep up.

You taught me about space, about machines, about centrifugal force, about levers and fulcrums, about vitamins and why our bodies need them.

You were the first person I knew to own a video camera and VCR. I watched Superman and Star Wars countless times in your living room, even though you told me I would get square eyes.

You convinced me there were coins hiding behind my ears, which, quite honestly, used to horrify me; I believed the cartilage in my ears was made of coins waiting to burst through. Ick. But I still happily spent the money on lollies.

You told me you were Tarzan, because you could swallow whole mandarins. I didn’t believe you, so you proved it. I’m still not quite sure how you did that…

You could stand on your head at sixty years old longer than I could at six, or probably ever. You had more energy in the weeks leading up to your death than I do most days. Dad told me you climbed that tree again just a few weeks ago.

I will never forget your inventions and contraptions, our trips to trash and treasure markets, your love of gadgets, and how you could always explain things in a way I could understand. Your energy was nothing short of astounding, and I honestly thought you would die by falling off a roof or getting struck by lightning or something. I’m glad I got to see you again at Christmas, and I’m so proud that you got to know your great-granddaughter. I promise she will always know who you were, what you were, and how much you meant to me.

2 thoughts on “How do you explain…

  1. I think in memory of your Grandpa , a book on how cheeky Gravity is would be a lovely childrens book. Just a thought . The way you remembered what he would ask you if you fell . Gravity is science. To your Grandpa was something fictional like Peter Pan and his shadow. X

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