About six weeks ago my mom called me at work. I instantly knew it was bad news because she rarely calls me at work and this was the first time she’d ever called me there using her cell phone. She got right to the point: “Your father is in the hospital.”
Dad is 85 and his health has been declining for the past few years. There’s been a few scares, but he’s always come out on the good side of luck. This time, though, it was much more serious: his doctor ordered him to undergo a colonoscopy and sent Dad right to the hospital from his exam.
The doctor had found a mass and quickly determined it was malignant. Somehow it fell on me to tell both him and my mom the cancer diagnosis, but that’s a story for another time. Fortunately, the cancer had not spread and the doctor wanted it removed as soon as possible. However, Dad already had plenty of other health problems, – he’s on blood thinners because of clots, has bad circulation in his legs, plus he had recently told he’s diabetic. His entourage of doctors were fantastic and within five days, they were able to get his blood count up and his various other ailments under control enough so they could perform the surgery.
This triggered a flashback from when I was six years old: when my parents told me and my sister that my dad was going to have an operation on his arm and would be in a hospital for a while. I don’t think they ever said the word “cancer,” but I do remember overhearing my mom saying the word “melanoma” when talking to other adults about it. Details are hard to remember, but I’ll never forget feeling scared and not understanding what was happening.
This is where my dilemma began.
What was I going to tell my kidlets about Pop Pop? To them, Pop Pop is king. Why, I’m not quite sure. Dad doesn’t play with them, can’t hear them – he wears hearing aids in both ears – but does light up when he sees his grandkids and loves to give them hugs, kisses and let them sit on his lap. I knew it wouldn’t be long before they would ask me why they haven’t seen Pop Pop, especially if we went and visited Nana. What if something happened to my dad? How could I explain that without giving them a backstory?
That night my husband and I discussed it. Our kidlets are four and almost two. How should we tell them? When? How much did they need to know? Would they even understand?
We decided that we needed to tell them something and right away since we were going to take turns going to the hospital each night to see Dad. We came up with, “Pop Pop is sick. He’s in the hospital so they can help him feel better.” It was simple, direct and easy to understand. Luckily, the kids accepted it pretty well, not too many questions that we had to deflect. They both immediately started to color pictures for Pop Pop so he could hang in his room.
Phew, I thought. Crisis averted….until my four year old son wanted to visit Pop Pop in the hospital.
My husband and I had another round of discussion and this time with my own mom and dad. With some hesitation, we agreed that our son could visit. Our daughter wasn’t even a consideration. She is way too young and could be traumatized by seeing him there. She would hang out downstairs in the hospital with her aunt during the visit.
Two days before his surgery, after a few blood infusions, a good grooming and not too many tubes sticking out of his body, Dad looked well enough to see his grandson. The visit only lasted 10 minutes, long enough for my son to give his Pop Pop a paper plate fish with googly eyes and a round of hugs, kisses and “I love yous.” It was good for both my son and my dad to see each other. My son still talks about how brave he was and how happy Pop Pop was to see him! I think it was the right decision.
My father made it thru the surgery, but his recovery has been very slow. He’s now in a rehab facility to build back his strength. I go and visit him at the rehab after work a few times a week, and the kids always make sure I have some new drawings to give him. Dad’s bulletin board is covered with artwork including of Chuggington, Cars and Curious George. He’s doing physical and occupational therapy and is finally starting to walk again, so it won’t be too much longer now before both the kids can see their Pop Pop again.
Have you ever had to tell a child something difficult? How did you do it?