|My mother-in-law on her 88th birthday two years ago|
At the moment my mother-in-law is slowly dying. She’s 89, has been getting frailer for years, but we think this is the final stage. She’s at her home on our farm with a nurse and two of my sisters-in-law taking care of her. My husband and I take turns sitting with her when she’s calm, but can’t really help with the nursing. Our kids are just going on with their usual routine of school and play, even though there is an atmosphere of limbo and holding of breath in our lives.
We wish she could go quickly and have a release from the distress and discomfort that she’s experiencing, but dying happens in its own time; strength of spirit fights frailty of body and the letting go process is hard.
My kids asked questions about death when they were younger. They know our beliefs. But this is the first time it has been so close to them. When my father died it was a distant thing, cut and dried news from the other side of the world. They attended his memorial service but I flew over alone for the funeral. Now they are on the fringe of a gradual, drawn-out dying.
Co-incidentally the story book I’ve been reading to them over the last couple of months Roller Skates (Newbery Library, Puffin) is one of those old-fashioned children’s stories that isn’t afraid to confront death in one of the good characters. We reached one of the later chapters where a little 4 year old girl, befriended by the heroine loses a battle with pneumonia and the doctor she brings to her arrives too late to save her. I’d forgotten about this and it came right in the middle of this week of nursing their old grandmother. We started talking about the old days – this is set in New York in the late nineteenth century, before antibiotics and when poverty meant that young children often did die of diseases that can be cured easily today.
At one point Middle Daughter said she didn’t want to talk about death any more, so we stopped. It made me wonder if we should be talking to them more about what is happening around them, or let them insulate themselves with their regular lives and let it flow over their heads. It’s all part of life and growing up, so I don’t believe we should protect them too much by not telling them anything, but I don’t want to force them to confront more than they can deal with emotionally. I’m a great believer in answering questions when they come up, at whatever age and letting things unfold in their own time, so hopefully we’ll hit the right balance.
Anyway I’m glad it turned out that we were reading Roller Skates just at this time, and have lingered over it longer than usual what with the distraction of holiday time, and forgetting the book when we went away to the river for our holiday. It turned out to be entirely the right thing to be reading, giving enough room for discussion and putting feelings into words and images.
Looking at the reviews on Amazon, most of the adults had fond memories of it being read to them as children and re-read it regularly, while the kids who reviewed it universally found it boring. So definitely better to read aloud to your kids – mine all enjoyed it.
I don't know how many more days my mother-in-law has left but I hope she finds the right time and slips away peacefully. I hope my children learn and grow from the experience of death happening within the family, rather than removed and sanitized by distance. It is all part of life after all.
25th Jan Edited to add: Juju died peacefully in the night with three of her six children around her. She was compos mentis and full of humour to the end. Go well Juju on your next adventure, with all our love.