Nothing Can Ever Prepare You To Tell Your Children That Their Father Died

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Elaine Roth

I thought I’d said all the hard words. I thought that explaining cancer and telling my two children, just six and eight at the time, that their father had cancer in his brain would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to say. But I was wrong. There were harder words that would need to be spoken, words that couldn’t be couched in hope and faith.

Not: “Daddy has a spot of cancer in his brain, but the best doctors are working on him.”

Not: “Daddy is going to stay at the hospital so the doctors can watch him and give him medicine.”

Not even: “Let’s hope tomorrow will be better.”

Maybe I should have known those harder words were coming the moment their father was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, a vicious and terminal disease with dismal survival rates. Or maybe I should have known the day his tumor did the thing Glioblastoma tumors aren’t supposed to do and dropped into his spine. Or maybe I should have known the day he entered hospice.

I didn’t. Somehow, I thought we—I—would find a way to defy the statistics and create the miracle and never have to utter to our children those words that would steal away childhoods, tear apart innocence, and destroy the seemingly indestructible belief in happily ever after.

Matt died at 9:37 p.m. in a hospice room. The day he took his last breath, he’d been visited by friends and family, and his room had been filled with love and laughter, card games and stories of his heyday, but he’d died with only me by his side.

Courtesy of Elaine Roth

The friends and family had left earlier. His children—our children—had left shortly after for dinner and a breather from a place in which death was the verb written into the crease of every smile and the quiet silence that followed every giggle.

I was the one to hear his last breath, the one to take the first breath in a world that had lost him, and the person who now had to spread the news to all those family and friends. Still recovering from the shock of the way the room had fallen silent when two heartbeats faded to one, it was up to me to tell his parents and sisters, his friends…and his children, who’d left not knowing that they would not be back to visit tomorrow, that, by the morning, they’d be fatherless.

I thought that explaining cancer and telling my two children, just six and eight at the time, that their father had cancer in his brain would be the hardest thing I’d ever have to say. But I was wrong.

I returned home late that night, nearly midnight or well past, and looked up the stairs, to the closed doors of my children’s room. It seemed a cruelty to wake them up to tell them their father had died. Or maybe it was an act of cowardice. I chose to let them sleep, to give them one last night to believe in happy endings.

My daughter woke first the next morning and stumbled into my room the way she always did: rubbing her eyes and scanning the quiet morning light to ensure she hadn’t missed anything while she slept. She climbed into bed, now used to the empty space beside me where her father had slept before the extended hospital stay that led to the hospice facility. She took up the remote control and turned the television on. The words I needed to say to her lodged in my throat.

I waited for my son to wake up, telling myself they should hear this news together, that it would be easier to bear the heartbreak if they had each other to lean on.

She watched T.V. and I watched her, trying to commit the details of the morning to memory, hoping to remember how she looked in the moments before her world would be forever changed and she would be forever altered.

Courtesy of Elaine Roth

She didn’t ask about Daddy because in her world, death was an abstract concept, a tragedy that befell the parents of Disney characters off-screen, a thing that didn’t happen before you had a chance to say goodbye.

When my son woke up, he crawled into bed like his sister, sleepy and calm and secure in the knowledge that today would look like yesterday, maybe even that today would be better than yesterday because we had previously made plans to complete a special family project with an art therapist who was coming to Matt’s hospice room that afternoon. The best laid plans…

That belief, the innocent certainty that today would look like yesterday, that all stories ended with a “happily ever after,” was the essential piece of childhood that I was going to steal by saying the words I needed to say.

With no reasons left to stall, I said the two words that would break their hearts: Daddy died.

And then I watched, helpless, as their hearts broke.

With every breath in my body, I wanted to ease their pain, but I couldn’t. I wanted to promise that I’d always be there, but I didn’t. Because that promise was out of my control, and they knew that now. They now knew that I couldn’t protect them from every heartbreak; I couldn’t always guarantee for them the happy ending. They now knew that the people they love most in the world could die.

I could tell them only that I loved them, that I was here now. I could walk with them to the window and look up at the sky and find something beautiful. I could answer questions about heaven and give my truth—that I don’t know the answer to where Daddy is, but maybe a soul is energy and energy doesn’t just disappear. Maybe it transforms into something that is always with us, even if we can’t see it.

With no reasons left to stall, I said the two words that would break their hearts: Daddy died.

And then I could do nothing but be there, wait and watch through the blur of my own tears over the next few days as they alternated between crying into my lap and laughing with the friends who’d come to pay their respects, as they played with aunts and uncles and also retreated, finding refuge in silence.

Over the next few days, I watched them crumble and stand up again. I watched them become stronger in the moments they felt the weakest and walk when it seemed they could do nothing but crawl. I watched them lose their innocence, their trust in fairy tales, and happily ever afters, and also live their truth, however that truth looked in that moment because childhood is always more than happily ever after.

And I realized that I was wrong. Because though words are powerful, and though words can change the shape of a life, a childhood can’t be stolen by two words. Children are too resilient for that.

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