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John Fitzsimons: 'How I'm helping our young children grieve following my wife's death'

Almost two years ago, John Fitzsimons' wife Grainne died of cancer, leaving behind two young children. Here he writes movingly about helping them grieve


John Fitzsimons was in awe of his kids’ bravery after telling them their mother had died. Photo: Caroline Quinn

John Fitzsimons was in awe of his kids’ bravery after telling them their mother had died. Photo: Caroline Quinn

John Fitzsimons was in awe of his kids’ bravery after telling them their mother had died. Photo: Caroline Quinn

It's 7.15am on Thursday, December 22, 2016. I am sitting on the floor in my six-year-old daughter Ella's bedroom at our home in Templeogue, leaning up against the radiator. The curtains are closed, blocking out the winter darkness and the room is lovely and cosy.

My four year old son, Jack, soon joins us. I give them both their morning hugs which they always need. And today, more than any other day, I really need them too. I am bracing myself for the hardest conversation I've ever had.

At this very moment, my children don't know that their Mum died at 5.15pm yesterday after a long battle with cancer. Straight after she died, my first thought was, I need to tell the kids, but I was wisely advised that it could wait until they'd had a night's sleep.

As I get them to sit down beside me, I have butterflies in my stomach and take a few deep breaths.

And then I utter words no parent should ever have to: "Last night your Mum died."

I was expecting a deluge of tears, tantrums and anger. But instead, they leaned in for a big hug. And then there were a few questions about what happens next. It was all very calm.

I was in shock; they were fine. For the moment at least. And in that moment, I realised that we had done a decent job handling this awful scenario.

It could have been so different, if we had not got such good support. Gráinne had originally been diagnosed with melanoma in 2003, and was mainly well for the next decade. But in the summer of 2016, we got the terrible news that the cancer had come back and it had spread. She was only 40.

We had been advised to keep the kids in the loop all the way along, easy in theory, but difficult in reality when Gráinne was so focused on living and could not fathom how it could be that she was weeks away from never seeing them again.

But children are more perceptive than we give them credit for. The chances are they already sensed most of what was going on. The advantage of telling them is that their imagination no longer needs to run wild.

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The hard part was summing up the courage to have that hard conversation in the preceding weeks when it was apparent that their mother was dying. As it turns out, it was taken out of my hands. One day we were in a picture framing shop chatting to the lady behind the counter. The print I was framing was from Kenya - I'd bought it on one of my many trips there as part of my job working for an educational charity. The shopkeeper said she had an aunty in the missions in Kenya who had recently died from cancer.

Ella immediately hopped on it. "Will Mummy die of her cancer?" she asked.

There is a time and a place and this was not it, so I gave her an ambiguous answer. But later that day in the car, I returned to the subject. "Remember you asked about Mum earlier?" I said. "Well yes, Mummy will die of her cancer, we are not sure when but probably in the next few weeks." Unlike most conversations with adults where the language is softened and phrases like "passed away" are used, this was short, clear and simple. The kids understood and accepted what I told them. After a few minutes, Jack noticed an ad on a bus and asked a question about that; they had moved on, as kids do.

The news didn't change their relationship with their mother which was filled with as much love as ever. That was until the last two days when Gráinne's condition worsened to the point where she was in a deep rest most of the time. The kids came in to visit and believed that the motionless woman lying in the bed was not really their mother.

Their mother was the lady who, when collecting them from creche every day, had the biggest smile on her face. The lady who was so fun and loving; always playing with them and giving them copious hugs. The lady who told them at bedtime and in the morning every day that she "loved them to the moon". How wonderful it is that their enduring memories are so beautiful and not from the last two days of her life.

But it's not been all plain sailing for them. They ask about death from time to time, and they are very dependent on me and, for a time, suffered from separation anxiety, becoming very clingy whenever I was heading out anywhere.

Last year, I was going away with work for a few days and my son wanted to know what happens if the plane crashes. Another time I fell off my bike and there was some blood on my hand and he wanted to know would I die. But over time, they came to see that they were just really unlucky and that I am going nowhere for quite some time.

What has been really important is to keep Gráinne present in their lives. There are photos of her everywhere in the house, including a blow-up print of them individually with their mother in both of their bedrooms. In the months following her death, we made a picture book with words to remind us all of who Gráinne was and what a kind, caring wife and mother she was. We took notes of the memories we had together and have them in a jar, which we add to and go through from time to time.

Gráinne is gone, but in another way, she's not. And I see her in both of them every day. Ella, who is now eight, has recently fallen in love with reading. Every evening, she is snuggled up on the couch with her book exactly how her mum would have been.

So after the group hug on the bedroom floor on that awful day, I asked them do they want to stay at home or go to school? They both in unison said they want to go to school!

I was in awe of their bravery. In that moment, I knew they'd be okay. And they are still to this day.

John Fitzsimons will be speaking at the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network's conference in Dublin today, as part of Bereaved Children's Week. See childhoodbereavement.ie for more

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