How do you comfort a young child who just realized they will soon be parted from a beloved relative?

My aunt is dying. She is like a mother to me and she has been very present into our lives in general so my son probably perceives her more like his nan than anything else. At his age (nearly 4) the concept of great aunt or grand parent is confused, the line is blurry: it is all about how much an adult played with you, took you out for a walk, talked to you in a kind voice, prepared you a tasty afternoon snack, more than the genealogical tree that tights you to them.
She was diagnosed with cancer when my son was as tiny as 3 months old. After the joy of him entering into our lives, we had this shocking and heart-breaking news that spoiled that moment. Best case scenario up to 5 years ahead of her, that was the prognosis. We booked a last minute train ticket and accommodation in the town where she lived in France and spent a month with her whilst she started treatment to encourage her fighting for herself, but to be honest for us most of all (I was on maternity leave and my husband unemployed just that short period of his life: sometimes you can really see there is a plan behind everything that happens to you, so we could be there for her).
Since then I made a few vows to myself, amongst which the one to visit her regularly in Brittany (twice a year at Easter and Halloween, since Christmas and summer time we visit my husband’s family in Tuscany) and I lived up to my promises. Not a surprise my son is attached to her and consider her part of his life, despite the distance and the alternate connection (he is used to it with relatives anyway). Now she is getting worst and worst, therefore I call her every other day, mainly to tell her the many beautiful things we do, to make her smile, rather than asking her how she is feeling, fearing only to remind her it’s nearly the end (as if she was not thinking of it all the time anyway – at least I can distract her for a little bit).

When I make a phone call to someone and my son is around, he can be a bit of a cheeky monkey: since he wants his mum all for himself he would start marching and singing The grand old Duke of York at the top of his voice or any other similar behavior, just to quickly make me stop the conversation and go back playing with him… Kids 🙂 He also usually refuses to speak to any of his relatives abroad when they are on the phone as I suppose he might find it very boring!
However I was on the phone with her yesterday and he spontaneously asked me if he could speak to her. He did not stay long, nevertheless I was glad he had a short conversation with her (Yes, no, no, a bit – replying to my aunt’s questions). When we were all sitting around the table as a family at dinner time, I told him I was very proud of him for having spoken to aunty Cecile on the phone for once, as she enjoyed hearing his voice for sure and also because she was very sick and we did not know how many times we would still have a chance to speak to her. I am not sure why I did it. I remember hating my parents lying to me or treating me like an idiot on the important things about life (grief, finance, sex, politics, family matters…), so I guess I naturally tend to be very honest with my son. I don’t think a mother is there to protect their child from every sorrow they could possibly experience in life, as this is practically impossible and unhealthy anyway. I believe a mother is there to provide, as far as possible, her child with tools for them to sort their own problems in their own ways as best as possible. That is why for instance, if my son gets in a ‘fight’ with another child, I don’t go and tell off that kid, I accompany my son to find the courage to say to that child ‘No pushing please, I don’t like it, it makes me feel scared’ or whatever else it is he needs to express.

But by saying so, my son started asking me some more questions and we entered into this emotional, odd, heart breaking conversation. He first asked me what I meant by saying we won’t be able to speak to her much longer. I explained that she may be soon gone. ‘Gone where?’ as if she was moving house again… I paused and thought for a second. Then I replied.
Me – Do you remember when we play pirates and you pretend to have killed me with your sward and I say – Luckily we are only pretending, as if I was dead for real it would be very sad not to see you anymore…?
Him – Yes…?
Me – Well, that’s what it means being gone. You are not here anymore.
Him (after a little silence) – Like when your heart stops beating? (He has recently discovered he can hear a tum-tum in his chest so his father explained him the heart’s function and that it is a good thing to hear it as it means it’s working well 🙂 ).
Me – That’s exactly right…
Him (innocently and still curious) – Does that mean that my heart will stop beating one day too?
At that point I almost felt sick. Until you have children you are dreading the end for yourself and don’t even want to think about it. But once they enter into your life, you don’t think of your end anymore, the only thing you absolutely don’t even want to imagine for a second is if anything happened to them: you just want to know you will long be gone before they do, as it should be in the natural course of life. However you are reminded of it every day, when you teach them the road rules, when you forbid them to put chairs and stools next to open windows, when you get them away from the kitchen if there is boiling water to cook some pasta…

I tried to compose myself and not let that feeling come out in my facial expression, as your child feels secure when you show you are calm and peaceful. I replied instead:
Me – It will, as everyone does… But you will be very old, after a long, happy and fulfilling life! (with a smile, trying to sound excited about the amazing adventure he had waiting ahead of him).
Him (after a reflective pause) – But I want to see aunty Cecile again after she is gone… How could I do that?
Me (with the softest voice I could ever have) – My little treasure, I am afraid you won’t be able to see her anymore once she is gone. She will be in your memories and on our pictures though… Now, why don’t you explain me again what game you were trying to play earlier on, as I was a bit distracted and did not get the rules right?!
I managed to change subject, despite I felt a jerk for having been the one who brought it up and now desperately wanting to lift my mood and end it asap. We finished dinner and then it was time to brush teeth and go to bed. At that point my son started a tantrum saying he did not want to go to bed whatsoever, being very dramatic and all. Now, I have learned through experience that when he does that, the problem lies somewhere else. There is something that bothers him and he does not even know that most of the times (otherwise the other options to explain a tantrum are he is overtired, hungry or bored…). If you ask him ‘What’s wrong with you?’ in an annoyed pitch of voice, it only gets worst and he will reply nothing most of the times. So you have to be super wise and rewind the last hour or so to understand what he has found difficult to process that makes it impossible for him to get on with his little life, hence the tantrum. Basically you need a psychology degree but unfortunately it does not automatically come with the baby itself, after you delivered them and their placenta lol! All you can do is to be very attentive at what happens during your child’s day from his point of view (as if you didn’t have enough to deal with, and easy to say if you see details by nature, hard to accomplish if you have never had that attitude in the first place 😦 ). Therefore, after failing to give me a good reason why he was making it so difficult, I asked him if the reason why he did not want to go to bed was the topic we had discussed earlier on (as to be honest I had a suspect it may have upset him just before bed time). He nodded his head.

I asked him if I had made him sad because of what I said about his aunty. He said yes and his eyes started to be watery, his lip to curve. He told me that if aunty Cecile’s heart stopped beating he wouldn’t be a bit sad, he would be terribly sad for ever. That was when my son actually crumbled in tears. And I did too, hugging him tightly into my arms, telling him I would be very miserable too. Then I breathed and asked him if he had preferred me not to tell him at all and he said yes. He started pleading he wanted to see her again after she was gone, he implored me to see her again straight away. I suggested I could ask aunty Cecile the following day to try learning to make Skype phone calls as we did with his Italian grandparents and he agreed to that solution, calming down a bit.
Me – I am sorry I made you sad by telling you aunty Cecile is really sick, I just wanted to be honest with you. Do you remember that day you told me to throw away all your toys in the bin as you were upset to play on your own whilst I was busy doing something else? Do you remember when you actually thought they have been collected in the rubbish and had gone forever? And how happy you felt when you realized it had not really happened? Do you remember we talked about making the most of the things we have, and really enjoying every single moment as they may be gone one day? It’s for the same reason I told you about aunty Cecile, so you know you can make the most of your time with her on the phone now…
I know, he is only 4 and I can be a tough mother to be around, don’t I?!

At that point he asked me:
Him – So even Edward’s (one of his little friends at nursery we had met for a playdate the day before) heart is going to stop one day? And even his mum’s? (Drying his last tears with his sleeve).
Me – Yes, even them, everyone my big boy.
Him – But then there won’t be anyone left in London!
Me – There will, as there will be other babies born to give joy to their parents! My grandparents for instance are not here anymore, they passed away before you were born, but now there is some space for you… You see, it’s a bit like sharing, it’s everyone’s turn sooner or later, we have to share all the energy there is on our planet, we cannot use it all together at the same time, so now it is your turn to enjoy your time on Earth…
Him – It’s my turn now?
Me – Oh yes, it is! (He likes when it’s his turn 😉 ) OK, are we ready to brush our teeth now?
Him – Yes, but I am going to get to the bathroom before you because… Iiiiii aaaaaam superman!
Me – No doubt you will, as you are super fast!

An hour later he would be deeply asleep in his bed and I would look at him thinking ‘I really wish you were superman my little boy, you would be immortal and I would never ever have to think that something bad could happen to you. But maybe the fact that you are not, makes you even more precious to me and looking after your safety less of a weight. Goodnight superboy’

PS The words chosen to transcribe this dialogue may not sound particularly likely, being my son so young, however he speaks in French to me, so I did not know exactly what expressions he would have used in English, apologies if it sounds too formal/adult like 🙂

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