When Rick died suddenly last August, my son Brandon and his wife Lindsey were forced to quickly research the best way to handle explaining his death to my then 2 ½-year-old grandson, Jonas. They didn’t want to confuse him by telling him that his Papa “went away,” because he might think Papa was coming back. They knew he was too young to fully understand the concept of death (I still have many questions, myself) so they simply told Jonas that Papa was sick, and then he died. They explained that we wouldn’t be seeing him anymore, that he wouldn’t be coming back.
Jonas seemed puzzled, then asked, “Did Boba die, too?” I’m Boba. For some unknown reason, Jonas started calling me that at a very young age. And Jonas knew that Papa and Boba were together all the time, so it was a natural question. They told him, no, Boba didn’t die. They brought him to my house to see me a few days later, and warned me that he kept repeating, “Where’s Papa? Papa died.” In fact, when he first arrived, he went from room to room looking for his Papa and kept returning to me to ask over and over, “Where’s Papa?” It broke my heart, but, as with everything else concerning Rick’s death, I got used to it.
Rick and I have been blessed with five wonderful grandchildren, from ages 16 to just over one year. They have been a bright spot in my life and have helped me find joy in my grief as I struggle through holidays and birthday celebrations without him. The three older kids are each coping quietly with their “Tall Papa’s” death. The baby was born a few months before Rick died. But Jonas is at the “why?” stage, and handling his many many questions about Rick can be daunting.
I babysit the youngest two once a week. Nearly every week following Rick’s death, Jonas mentioned Papa. Often, he wanted to look at his photos on my phone. He would swipe through the pictures, then look up at me and say, “Papa died. Papa was sick.” He’d look thoughtful for a minute or so, and then resume playing.
At first, I would quietly shed a few tears, but eventually, I was able to simply smile and agree. Week after week, at some point in my visit, Jonas would say, “Boba, Papa died.” And I would say, “Yes, Jonas, he did.” At one point, after saying, “Boba, Papa died,” he laughed and said, “Papa was crazy!”
I have no idea why he said that, but perhaps he remembered his Papa acting goofy and telling him silly things when we visited. For whatever reason, he added the “crazy” part, and that little additional comment always makes me smile.
Nine months have passed. Jonas turned three at the end of December, and he’s learning more about life and still questioning everything. At various times, he’s asked me different and more difficult questions: Why did Papa get sick? Why did Papa die? Where did Papa go? Why can’t Papa come back?
I’m never sure how to answer in a way a three-year-old will understand, so I usually honestly answer, I don’t know why, Jonas. Papa was sick. Papa died.
Earlier this year, he also experienced the fact that other Papas die, too.
My nephew-in-law’s father died in February, and Jonas was at the funeral. Seeing his favorite cousins crying over their Papa in the casket confused him. Whose Papa is that? So many Papas dying! At one point in the following weeks, we had to correct him when he heard that Lindsey’s dad (who lives in another state) was sick and he started telling people THAT Papa died, too. A Facetime visit helped to convince him that his Florida Papa was still alive.
Once, he saw a photo of my deceased father, and asked who he was. We explained that this was a picture of his daddy’s Papa, and that he had also died. As a result of grasping that other Papas have also died, his comments about Rick have evolved a bit to clarify which Papa he means. A few months ago, he began saying, “Boba, Papa died, MY Papa died.”
I know you’re never prepared for what crazy notions a child will have, but the other night when I was sitting with the kids, Jonas threw me for a loop. Rick and I often stopped in our local park because we loved to work outdoors on our laptops, or have lunch, or just hang out. He bought us each a folding chair with a little fold-down side table that we kept in the car so we’d always be prepared for our impromptu park visits. I still carry one with me, just in case I feel like having some quiet time in our favorite spot.
Wednesday was a beautiful day, and Jonas wanted to play in his front yard while he waited for his parents to come home. I pulled the folding chair out of my car and sat in it while Jonas was running around. Always observant, Jonas ran over to me and said, “That’s Papa’s chair!” I responded that Papa had given it to me. He said, “Papa died. MY Papa died.” I told him, yes, his Papa had died, and for no reason, I added, “Papa was my husband.” Jonas said somberly, “Papa was MY husband, too.”
As is often the case lately, I laughed and cried at the same time.
I’ll admit, in the first months after Rick’s death, it was difficult stemming the tears week after week when Jonas talked about his Papa being dead, but now, more often than not, it makes me smile that he still remembers his Papa so fondly. I know as time passes, he’ll probably lose all memory of his Papa Rick, but when he’s older, I’ll be able to share old pictures of them together and tell him stories about his “crazy” Papa for years to come.
It’s difficult explaining death to small children. It’s tough enough coping with the questions myself. In the nine months following Rick’s death, how many times have I pondered those same questions Jonas has: Why did Rick get sick? Why did Rick die? Where did he go? Will I see him again someday?
And I don’t have any satisfactory answers. All I can tell myself is: Rick was sick. Rick died. Rick isn’t coming back. But I’ll always cling to the hope that I’ll see him again someday.