I hate screwing up as a parent. I hate when I do or say the wrong thing, when I get frustrated, when I try to intercede in one of the kids’ disagreements and end up making it worse. I feel like such a failure. And, it’s a feeling I can’t shake easily.
I thought I could prevent these moments by reading parenting blogs and books and doing all the things good people do to be prepared for their little ones. So, the electric sockets in our house are secured like Fort Knox, my husband and I spent too much money on the “best” stroller, and we even made our own baby food (OK, just for the first kid, but still, it counts).
But sometimes I just feel like it doesn’t matter. They are already at a disadvantage; they already have a loss I cannot fix.
In 2001, my father died. Losing my dad is the most profound sadness of my life. I carry it with me always. And, to make it even worse, my husband’s father passed away in 2003. So, before they were even born, R and G were without grandfathers. No Papa, Grandad, or Bomp (that’s what my husband called his maternal grandfather).
I want my babies surrounded by love, encouragement, and lots and lots of support. I want them to have positive role models–both male and female–and, most of all, I want them to know my dad. I want them to feel that joy I always felt when I made him laugh, to watch a baseball game with him, to make him proud, and to give him a big hug.
But, instead, I have a not-quite-four-year-old who asks about people dying all of the time.
It started innocently. R really got into dinosaurs. He wanted to learn all about them. And, guess what? All of the dinosaurs died. He became very adept at explaining the possible reasons for their demise (volcano! meteor!). But it didn’t seem like he really got it.
Around the same time, R began to notice the family photos scattered around the house, especially the pictures of our fathers; after all, they were people he didn’t know. At first, he just asked who they were. Then, where they were. We would explain: they lived in heaven. He would ask why. It’s impossible–and inappropriate, in this case–to explain cancer to a preschooler. If I said they got sick, would I scare him? He kept asking. And, asking. And, asking. My mom, finally, answered R most directly: they got very, very sick and died, she said. Ironic that the person battling cancer herself was the one to step up and address it head on. I tried to help, adding that they lived in heaven now and watched over him, making sure he and his sister are safe. To my relief, he accepted these explanations and didn’t seem scarred.
But, regularly now, he asks why the dinosaurs died, why his grandfathers died, if he will die, and if his teachers will die. It’s disconcerting when my baby asks about death. It seems wrong. My instincts scream out for blessed ignorance. I know he doesn’t understand what death means, but I want so to protect him from anything that could lead to the sadness I feel when I think about why my dad isn’t here.
I decided, though, that I can’t be paralyzed by this line of questioning. I can’t let myself feel like a failure if I don’t know how to handle every situation or if I don’t handle it perfectly. This is only one of many things that I will have to handle as a parent, and I have to face these situations head on. So, now, my strategy, when these I-just-want-to-hide-in-the-closet moments occur, is to take a deep breath and listen to what my little people are saying. Don’t freak out when, over the breakfast table, my son asks if he’ll die. Think about why he’s asking. Tell him a funny story about my dad. Answer calmly, honestly, and respectfully. Be there for my babies. Always.