It’s hard to explain death to a child.
Miles is still figuring out what it means to exist; trying to rationalize ceasing to exist is impossible (not that it’s much easier for adults, in all fairness). But this is where we’ve found ourselves this week, as Miles’s Papa passed away this morning.
Jaclyn left early to race over to the hospital, while I stayed behind to get Miles dressed and fed. As we walked over after breakfast, I knew that John had already passed and wanted to do my best to prepare Miles for it. He had visited with Papa last night in the same place after all; why wouldn’t he be able to do it again this morning?
“We go to see Papa?” Miles asked as we walked.
“Well,” I said, “we can’t see Papa now. He’s gone.”
“That’s right,” I confirmed. “He’s sort of gone someplace else now.”
Believing I had just posited some sort of mystery to solve, Miles exclaimed, “And we gotta go find him!”
“No, buddy,” I said, smiling at his reaction but trying to clarify. “Papa went somewhere we can’t go. Not for a long time.”
Leading up to this, both Jaclyn and I did our best to explain what was happening to Miles in terms he could grapple with — Jaclyn told him that Papa had a “boo-boo” inside of his body — but even that leads to further questions with complicated answers. But we have to try, because Miles has to be part of the process.
Even with COVID restrictions loosening, hospitals are generally not letting pre-adolescents in for visitations. Miles, however, was on the VIP list at MUSC — his Papa insisted on it. After over a year apart, John of course wanted to be able to say goodbye to his grandson.
I wasn’t sure how well Miles would respond to seeing firsthand the extent of John’s “boo-boo,” complete with tubes, wires, and a ventilator. But Miles warmed up quickly, holding his hand and sitting close as Jaclyn read a story for both of them (the whole room was silent really). As “last visits” go, it’s hard for me to imagine a better one.
While Miles and I walked back from the hospital last night, Miles commented on Jaclyn’s noticeable absence. “Where’s mommy?”
“Mommy is staying at the hospital for a while to see Papa,” I said.
“Because of his boo-boo?”
“He got to get better?”
Knowing what the future would hold, I decided to try clarifying things as much as I could. “Now, I know he’s got a boo-boo, but it’s the kind of boo-boo that can’t really get better.”
“Oh.” The idea of an unhealable boo-boo seemed to confuse him.
“Well,” I continued, “I bet seeing you helped him feel better.”
“I help Papa feel better?”
“I bet you made him feel happy, which I think is the most important thing right now.”
“I make him happy?”
“You sure do, buddy.”