Coping with loss, from the mouths of babes

You know when you become a mom that there are going to be times when you have to deal with the really difficult stuff with your child – the stuff of life, and of death – because both of these can be really hard, and both of these are inevitable.

It came sooner than I thought it would though, when three people that were part of our lives died in a fire. How to tell my big boy that the friend whose house he and his brother spent the afternoon with three days before, the boy he had shared a birthday party with the previous month, had lost his life in the bedroom that they were playing in, and that the boy’s mom and his baby sister had perished too?

I did what any chicken mom does. I delayed the inevitable, and called in an expert to tell the difficult tale. I dodged the question when my son saw the picture of the inferno on the front page of The Star, and asked whose house had burned down, holding off the terrible answer until someone else could give it, because I was too scared and too broken to do it myself.

The psychologist was amazing with Daniel and his friends at school. She asked about their friend, their favourite games with him, and what he liked the most. She then gently explained that he, his sister and his mother had been in an accident, but that they were safe now, and happy, and that they couldn’t be hurt any more. She explained that they weren’t coming back ever again, but that we could hold them all in our hearts.

Daniel was solemn, but calm, and only cried when I did. We wrote a message to his friend and his sister on helium balloons, and released them with the other children.

When my mom drove past the house later that week, not realizing where it was, he saw the burnt out shell and went quiet. “It was my friend’s house that burned down, wasn’t it, Nana?” he asked. “Yes, my boy,” she said, bracing herself. “It’s ok Nana. He’s safe now, he’s in heaven,” said my amazing boy.

I realized in this that the simplicity of his approach is what is helping him deal with the loss. He doesn’t know the details – although one day I’m sure he’ll figure it out. I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to delegate that explanation, one day when it happens. In being unaware of the details, he really is dealing with the simple facts. There was an accident. They are not here any more. They are safe. They cannot be hurt again. No more information required, really.

He’s not said much about it since, although every now and then he’ll mention a favourite game he played with his friend, or he’ll see something similar to a toy that he played with at his friend’s home, but he’s never sad or tearful.

Last week, he was all about tattoos, as some of the other children had some stick-on transfer tattoos. I hate them, but eventually gave in and got a pack of 35 (yes, 35!!!) tattoos for him and his brother to share. He wanted one on his chest, and just as I magically revealed the circular tattoo, he asked if that was near where his heart was.

“Yes, my boy,” I said.

“Cool. Then my friend can see it too. He’s in my heart, you see.”


Kerry Haggard

Kerry Haggard

Kerry Haggard, mother to the two most beautiful boys that ever there were. She’s willing to do pretty much anything for the two little Haggards, but every now and then she does draw the line – and hopes that they will understand why one day. You can follow her on Twitter: @KerryHaggard

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11 Responses

  1. Hi Kerry,
    Thank you for this article. You see I lost my Mom last November and she lived with me and my son(6Yrs old) for 3 years. Through her illness I explained to him what was happening to his Granny and some days I would look for him and find him in her room giving her water to drink with a straw when she could not drink by herself anymore. On another day I found him in there again sitting quietly on top of her dressing table holding a story book in his hands and he told me that he was reading to her the way I read to him. Well, throughout these 10 months he has random moments when he just cries and I look to see if he is hurt and he just tells me that he misses his Ma.The first time it happened I myself didn’t know how to handle it but we have had some help and now at least I can comfort him and hopefully help him through his grieving but it is very difficult to say the least.

    thank you

    1. Hi Amanda,
      I’m so sorry for your loss, and that your son seems to be still trying to deal with it. one of the most effective things that we did, at the suggestion of the psychologist that spoke to the children, was to write a message to the person who’s gone on a helium balloon, and then release it. The person’s in heaven, right? So you can watch the message go up to them on the balloon. This helped me as much as I think it helped the children.
      Wishing you strength to help your son through this…

  2. Hi Kerry

    Thank you for this article, I am the special friend’s yaya(granny).
    Whilst we are all grieving for my daughter and my grandchildren, we also draw enormous comfort reading articles and notes from parts of their lives that we, living in Durban were not privy to every day. It somehow connects us with their everyday lives, as we only saw them once a month when I came up to JHB to see Monica and to make sure that my grandchildren knew their yaya. I thank you as they are all in our hearts too.

    1. Hi Robbi.
      I think of you, so much, every day. I miss Monica, and I was only just getting to know her, you must miss her and those two beautiful children so much.
      Thank you for reading, and for commenting. I’ve got some photos from the birthday party that I would love to share with you – please would you drop me a mail on kerry dot haggard at gmail dot com so that I can make a plan to get them to you?
      Holding you and Shane and your famlies in my thoughts, so much,

  3. Hi there

    I read with much interest the above article as we had a very tragic death about a month ago when our 22 month old cousin lost her battle to AML- M5 cancer. It was so incredibly quick, 1 month from diagnosis to death. My 9 year old is at the stage where he understands death. He took it quite hard and wanted to attend the funeral, I as a mother decided that for a first funeral this would be one of the worst funerals and I decided not to take him, when I got home from the funeral we said a little prayer and he had a little tear. On the Saturday he asked me if we could take flowers for Milan, so we went and got flowers and I went and showed him where Milan was buried and explained to him and my 3 year old that they now have a very special angel to watch over them.

    They have made peace with the fact that she was very sick and is now in a better place and though heartbroken we can move on knowing that she is no longer suffering.

    My question comes in, where do her parents go to get the same support, to help them understand and get them through this time. They have withdrawn, are not taking calls and we understand all of this, but I do think that they need some help, and they do not want support from the cancer association. I think they need support and help from people that have lost children and can understand what they are going through and help them cope. I do not know what is best to help them at this stage. I do not think that anyone can ever understand the immense pain that they have.

    1. Hi Debbi,
      So sad for your family’s loss. I don’t know if you buy Living and Loving, but the back page column in May or June addressed the loss of a little boy of two, who died in a freak accident. The columnist spoke of how the funeral was all about being grateful that the family had been priviledged to know this little soul, rather than being devastated by the loss. Easy for us on the outside, I know, but maybe some sort of counselling (as Dori recommends) would be an idea? I know the Edenvale Methodist Church also runs a grief counselling group. But I hear you – they’ve got to be open to be helped and supported first.
      Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

  4. Beautifully written Kerry. I was at school with Monica and had a long history with the family. With regards children and loss they are too precious… Here is another story

    Another friend of mine died last year after a long fight with cancer. She left behind her hubby and a two-year old little girl. This little girl came to a playdate at my house a few weeks ago (she is now 3 and a half). My youngest son and her are great pals but he is going through a “mommy-vas” stage and promptly told this girl that I was HIS mommy. She promptly replied (with foot stretched out and hands on hips) that HER mommy was with Jesus in Heaven. So there…

    I could only chuckle and glance heavenward towards where my friend was and reassure her that her daughter was going to be just fine.

    1. Hi Julie,
      How lucky you were to have known Monica for so long!
      The little one that you talk about sounds like she is so sorted and prepared to deal with anything that comes her way! Children are far more sorted about stuff sometimes than we give her credit for.

  5. Hi Kerry,

    thank you for your reply and the balloon is a very good idea, thank you and I will most certainly do that.

    Much strenghth to you and your family and to Monica’s family too.


  6. Hi Kerry,

    Thank you so much for this article. There are many of us who have felt the pain of the loss of a loved one. Some days are easier than others ….. I agree fully that children are indeed far more sorted with stuff than we give them credit for. I love the balloon idea. CANSA did something similar at one of their events last year where hundred of blue balloons were released into the sky in memory of all those who had lost their battle with cancer. It was a very moving experience. I pray you find comfort during this difficult time.

    Warmest regards


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