It’s 1:00pm on a Friday afternoon and I’m busy doing some jobs around the house while my 4-year-old daughter plays. We’ve just come home from the hospital where we have been visiting her Grandpa, who once again finds himself hospital bound, thanks to the complications of terminal cancer. It’s a road we’ve travelled before and one we will keep on travelling…… until the road ends. And devastatingly, the end of the road is drawing near.
She has her favourite bears and dolls around her. The biggest and most beloved one, Fergus, is the centre of her attention as she and her dolls fuss around him.
“Quick!” she says sternly to her doll Jemima, “You need to get a mask on Fergus so he doesn’t get any germs because germs could make him dead”. She fusses around getting a mask and trying to attach it to Fergus’ head. As the game continues I listen and watch. I know what game she is playing because she plays it all the time and has for a while.
“Fergus has The Cance” she says to me as she sees me watching from the hallway, her beautiful blue eyes growing wider. At the age of three, she started calling cancer “The Cance” from the moment Grandpa got so sick that we had no choice but to explain it to her. Even though she knows and says the word cancer on occasions, it’s a term that has stuck. I don’t correct her.
“He has The Cance like Grandpa and he is very skinny so make sure you don’t hug him too tight because you will hurt his bones”. I nod and say ok. It’s a heartbreaking game of role play that has become a daily occurrence in our house. After a little bit of watching, I walk away and leave her to her game.
It’s just another side effect of a close family managing the scourge of cancer. Children role play to learn and to process what is happening in their world. But no matter how often this role play occurs, it is still like pouring a massive vat of salt into a gaping open wound on my heart. There is so much anxiety and fear that comes along with dad’s cancer and it hurts that I can’t completely protect my children from those emotions, especially when they are so young.
At the end of the day, children are so observant. Much more than we realise. They are listening when you don’t think they are. Watching my beloved father’s health decline has been brutal. A lively, active personality has been decimated into skin, bones and fatigue. All the while I have a six and a four-year old watching alongside us and trying to process what they are seeing. A process that is so hard for an adult, but must be mountainous for a child.
They have reacted in their own ways. There have been periods of separation anxiety, of confusion and of outright anger and fury. We’ve had repeated issues with them being scared to be near their Grandpa because they “don’t want to catch The Cance” and there has been much irritation and alarm because they don’t like Grandpa having “all of his hair gone!”
There have been multiple discussions around the topic over and over again. When I am repeatedly asked how and why Grandpa got cancer I still find it so very hard to answer. Because simply, sometimes it’s unexplainable. Melanoma is easy to explain because you can talk about the sun and wearing sun screen and hats etc. But cancers that just appear in your kidney for no particular reason… well it’s almost impossible to answer that question without scaring them or creating anxiety or fear that it might suddenly pop into their own little bodies as well.
Visiting a relative unwell in hospital is never fun. Visiting the oncology ward comes with its own raft of questions. Seeing Grandpa is always welcomed, but having to wear gowns, masks and gloves just to go into his room and say hello doesn’t always go down so well. It can be a tightrope walk at times.
We’ve travelled a sometimes rocky path with the kids when it comes to this card we’ve been dealt and it’s hard to know whether we are doing the right thing by them or not. At the end of the day I feel I need to always answer their questions honestly, in an age appropriate way, but can’t help feeling helpless and failure at certain stages. Am I even handling this properly or am I scarring them in some way?
Apart from the obvious grief and overwhelming emotions at times, Dad’s cancer has also resulted in a somewhat permanent state of high stress for most of our family. This elevated stress level has now become my new normal. If that is happening to me, it begs the question as to whether or not that has happened to my children too and if so, is it doing any long-term damage?
For the most part I now feel emotionally numb. Things that are so upsetting don’t illicit an external response at all and likewise, things that should provoke feelings of wonder, happiness and joy result in an apathetic response. Perhaps just a smile when there would normally have been raucous laughter. I desperately hope that it isn’t a permanent state and that it hasn’t become my new normal. If this has happened to me, is it happening to my children? They still laugh, squeal and smile easily like all kids do, but is it different from what it otherwise would have been?
Perhaps I’m now over thinking it all.
For the most part we take it one day at a time. Although at times it is confronting and upsetting for them, we see Grandpa as often as possible. I guess I will never know whether I’ve parented my children properly through all the upheaval and I will be flying completely blind when it comes to guiding them through the grief when my dad dies, especially through my own tear filled eyes.
Luckily, we live in a place where we have access to professional help if we need it. I don’t know when that will be. I guess I can only assume that my parental instinct will kick in and tell me if it’s time to take the kids to a professional counsellor.
In the meantime, there is family, friends and many days where housework and chores are forgotten and movies and cuddles reign supreme.