How does a child navigate the sickness and death of another child close to them

Gascoignes-100

The wonderful people I interview for the your stories series on pod tales are generous enough to share personal and pivotal stories of challenge and hardship.  With this in mind, I thought it only fair, that I share one too.

I was nine when the phone rang, one week day evening, to deliver the news that my seven year old cousin had incurable brain cancer.  As my parents broke the shocking news that my cousin was going to die, an ordinary day suddenly became extraordinary.  I, however, was completely perplexed.  How could this news be delivered with such certainty?  Surely they were wrong?  Just moments before, I had been joking around with my brothers and eating dinner, this kind of news doesn’t come after dinner.  There was no way my beautifully spirited and very much alive cousin could possibly die.  I was rather upset and annoyed by the whole scenario that had suddenly been thrust upon me.  I decided that adults were often overly dramatic about sickness, I comforted myself with this thought and packed the idea of death neatly away. 

As my cousin, an only child, started treatment for her brain cancer my parents made every effort for us to be with her as much as possible.   I would travel to the children’s hospital after school with my Dad and spend the afternoons chatting and playing with her.  It is these memories, of my last year with her, that I hold close.  I unpack them year after year as I grow older and as I go through life’s milestones, my lens changing to accomodate my ever changing life and circumstance.  Deeper understanding of what went on coming as the years drift by. 

At the time of her illness I navigated most of that year with a sense of optimism and innocence.  I had never known anyone who had been sick enough to be in hospital, so the visits there were a complete eye opener.  There was the beautiful doctor who gave us icy poles when we came to visit, her friendly nature and great kindness making a lasting impression on me and her own death from cancer, years later, reinforcing the lottery of the disease.  My cousin’s everlasting array of brand new toys that she received as generous gifts were very exciting as was the all you can eat Mc Donalds we were given whilst my cousin stayed at Ronald Mc Donald house.  Although, the fact that we were suddenly permitted to gorge ourselves on Mc Donald’s, when it was usually banned, did set alarm bells ringing.  As I watched my brothers run to order another round of hamburgers, it dawned on me that things might be more serious than I’d initially thought.   

All in all though, my memories until the last few weeks of her life were pretty positive.  Even when the adults around us broke down and could no longer fight back their tears I wasn’t too phased, I put it down to adults being serious.  I remember the day of a big party for my cousin, she was wearing the most beautiful dress I had ever seen.  I thought it was such a wonderful celebration and I couldn’t understand why one of my aunts was quietly weeping as my cousin sat on her lap, resplendent in her gorgeous party dress.  As tears streamed down her face, I wondered what had happened to her.   Why is she crying in the middle of a party? I thought.  The day was supposed to be fun.  Now years later, I identify so much with the poignant scene.  There was my young aunt, holding her beautiful niece on this special milestone day, grieving the fact that it would be her last. 

It was in the final two weeks of her life that my cousin looked sicker than I ever thought possible.  It  suddenly dawned on me that if she did die, it could be really painful. I really didn’t want that for her, after all she’d been through.  It was then that I began to wish for her to no longer be in pain, rather than for anything else.  It was not long after, that she died peacefully in her sleep.  We visited her in her bed at the palliative care hospital and as the adults buzzed around, some taking photos of us, I had no idea what to do.  I was desperately sad but didn’t want to break down in front of everyone.  As someone asked us to pose for a picture I smiled and was quickly told I didn’t need to.  I thought how stupid I’d been to smile but in all honesty had no idea what the appropriate etiquette for this type of thing was. 

When the end came, it was pretty devastating.  Everyone navigates grief differently and children journey through it in their own way.  I remember her often and even in small ways, like when my daughter picks up my cousin’s old toy that we have kept and asks where we got it from or when my son had his seventh birthday, I pondered that her seventh was her last.  Recently our family was touched by another beautiful little girl, a friend, who lost her life to brain cancer.  One night as I tucked my eldest child into bed, he asked me about a shadow he thought he could see in his room.  As he sometimes thinks about ghosts,  I comforted him, saying it was nothing to worry about.  Quick as a flash he replied, “I know mummy, I’m not worried, it’s just our friend passing through on the way to visit her mummy and daddy”.  His words reminded me of the innocence and optimism I had, now over twenty five years ago, when my cousin was ill.  It struck me how powerful the ability of a child is, to preserve the memory of these very special companions.