Saturday, February 7, 2009

Children and Loss

I've found that a lot of the advice from books on how to help children deal with loss is very age specific. Shin's blog has been about sharing, and thus I did want to share what our approach has been in helping the children, but ultimately I imagine any insights are only helpful to other families who happen to have similarly aged children as Josie (almost 6), and Toby (3).

After reading various books I think some of the key things we took to heart were 1) children hold a surprisingly strong grudge over "white lies" told to them, 2) its not their fault, its not their fault, its not their fault - its surprising how kids can take blame on themselves, 3) at young ages, its really all about them - who will take care of them, how will things change ...etc, 4) they won't really know how to feel and act and will take their cues from us.

Other things which we tried to prepare for were 1) overcoming being alone with the loss, 2) avoiding being picked on for being different, 3) answering other questions - are they orphans?, what happens if something happens to me?, will i re-marry?, what happens to the body? ...4) discipline has to be kept up as kids are likely to feel more insecure if patterns are changed.

So from the beginning, we been pretty straight with the kids about Shin's cancer. When Josie was only 2, Shin explained she had cancer, what it was, that it was not something you can "catch", that there are treatments that can make her better but that it may make her hair fall out and may make her tired and feel sick, and importantly that she could die. As it turned out Shin had surprisingly few side effects to the chemo, but she did loose her hair. Shin didn't like the feel of a wig and Shin was always the "accept (or not) me as I am" type of person. We noticed that hair issue seemed fairly big for Josie who was then about 3. Other kids in Josie's kindergarden class would stop and stare at Shin. Shin would simply explain that she is taking a special type of medicine that makes her hair fall out (needing to emphasize its a very special type of medicine - no other medicine will do that). Shin was outside Josie's class once waiting to pick her up while the kids were working on an art project. Shin heard Josie stand up and announce to the class the her mommy does not have any hair. It was not really a big deal, but it did signal that it was something she was dwelling on and seemed to be worried about others reactions to it.

As Shin's condition got worse with the recurrence and the spread to lungs, liver, and brain, we debated how much to tell the children. We decided that we didn't need to change what we had already been saying. That is that Shin still has cancer, the doctors have not been able to make it go away yet and Shin still needs to take medicine. Its true that at that stage normal life expectancy could be as little as 4-5 months. But we thought even that is too long for the kids to deal with. As it turned out the extra year that Shin had was already half of Toby's life. So we saved conversations that Shin was probably not likely to make it until Shin started to really weaken and we thought she would not have much longer left. As it turned out she had about 3 weeks left when we started giving the kids more information.

We planned on talking to them together, but it turned out hard to find a good time when Shin was able to talk and the kids were calm enough to listen. So instead we agreed I would talk to them when I had a chance. I explained that the doctors do not think they are going to be able to cure Mommy's cancer and that she could die and it could be soon. I explained that I would take care of them, Elisa our helper would be here to help take care of them and that their Grandmother (my mother) would move here more permantly to help take care of them. Josie asked what if something happens to me. I gave them the long list of people who love them and would want to take care of them. Toby asked what if all the grownups die, and I said that wont happen or the kids won't have anybody to boss them around and they could eat chocolate and watch movies all day - which made them quite excited. I said the I've read on the interenet (which to yound kids is the all knowing library), that many children who lose their parent think is their fault. I asked who's fault do they think it is? Josie said it was the cancer's fault. I told her she is very smart, and that we all did everything we could to make Shin better and it was no one's fault.

We talked about when some people die and they are buried and others are cremated. Josie didn't like the sound of cremation and said she didn't want that. We talked about how the body doesn't matter after we die. I said mommy's soul will be in your heart and in heaven. We talked about Star Wars which we had recently scene and talked about how when Ben Kenobe and Yoda died, they still looked after Luke Skywalker. Not being religious, makes things more difficult at this stage. I'd be happy to tell them anything that would make it easier for them, but also aware that I don't want to make my words seem insincere if one day I explain to the kids that I myself am not religious.

Josie said she hoped mommy won't "die soon" (I noticed she used my words). I tried hard to keep my composure and did not cry as I explained this to the kids. I don't think I was cold and unemotional but tried hard to keep strong. As a result neither Toby or Josie cried when I explained this all to them. Partly, they may have already known it, seeing Shin get weaker over time. Also maybe the withdrawal process is not so severe since Shin had been increasingly less able to do things with the kids, and thus they were already used to me doing everything for and with them.

The other thing I did after I spoke to the kids was explain to their schools the situation and what I had explained to the kids and asked them to keep an eye on Josie and Toby and let me know if they were behaving differently. As it turned out they seemed to do just fine. Josie's teacher mentioned that there was a school outing to Chinatown and about 10 of the other kid's mothers came along and that Josie was likely thinking of her mother not being able to come. Josie seemed to cry rather quickly when she got in an argument with a friend, but bounced back quickly and got over it. She sat on the bus next to her teacher and they talked about the movie the "Polar Express".

I continued to try to talk to the kids every day about their mother. I kept trying to make sure they felt secure that they will be well taken care of. Josie got tired of hearing about how they will be taken care of. So we talked about what we would miss most. I'm repeating my Eulogy, but Josie said her love, I said her smile and Toby said all of her. Josie said its ok because she will always find her love in her heart and I could find her smile in my heart. and Toby chimed in that he will find all of her in her heart.

This post is long enough already and I'm emotionally tired going through it again. I still want to update on how we all said goodbye and how we have been doing since, but I'l have to do that in the next post.



Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,
as much as the followers of the blog wants to know about the progress of you and joise and toby. Its important for us that you are keeping well too. We certainly do not wish to inflict any further pain or hurt on you than what you are going through by having you update the blog.

We thank you for constantly keeping us updated. However, at such moments, i guess its important for you to spend time with the kids and spend time w yourself and be at ease and at peace.

Take great care again! May God watch, protect, keep and hold you, joise and toby!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,
I have been following Shin's blog since the day I got to know abt it from one of my SMH's friend.

This is the 1st time I drop a comment here.

Can feel the pain in you for the lost of Shin and at the same time, trying your best to make Josie n Tony to feel alright.
I really feel very proud abt you..
Keep up ur good work.
At the same time, pls take care..
Is really tough for a father to shower the kids with FATHERLY N MOTHERLY love.
(Pardon me for my bad English)

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony, I think you are doing a lot and doing fine, everyone incl you, Josie and Toby and us changes in our thinking,etc, just that they are still kids who are at "absorbing" yet unable to express well enough, or may not express at all.

Good to know what's going on so far and really you are doing very well, keep the good "job" ya.

See that you have been addressing to a lot of aspects which we worried (eg the self guilt they will have, the regrets,etc) about the Josie and Toby and you knows about them too and looking for all ways and PUTTING THEM INTO ACTION . :)

Yes, white lies are harmful sometimes and I think being non religious is ok because Shin is not yet she is even more compassionate, frank, "real" person than some who is very religious in words. No offense to religion itself.

Understand that you are not unemotion,etc, but you want to be strong,esp in front of Josie and Toby and many of us,right? That's why I can see many posts telling you is normal to be like that and not forgeting to let yourself grief, cry (can be when you are alone or with some close ones) if you have to,etc, during this period. I also experience that and understand how and what you are going through, the mental tiredness, strain,etc.

I am glad that you understand that you need to constantly adapt and change your approach according to their age appropriateness,as they are growing up too. This is very important but I think Shin will be very happy and glad to see and know you have put in a lot of effort, and not just love. Well done and continue, this is a long journey and when is time for you to recharge, you need to, be it taking sometime for your own activities,etc, which will make you feel release and have the energy to carry on. Is essential and mandatory because you and us are just "ordinary" ppl and even few mins of calming your mind, releasing/peace finding will enable you to feel "fresh" and continue.

Glad that your mother will be there more often and permanent to help and the maid, Tony, don't forget to take care and dont' be too harsh on expecting yourself, ok? Take good care.

Maybe you can also progress and focus more on chatting with them on what they encounter for the day and how they feel and their reaction, even just by listening attentively and patiently to what they said. Then you can offer your comfort, advises and most important is your empathy with them. Constant showing and telling them that you understand what they said and empathy is the key to their security and wanting to tell you any of their problems even when they grow up. :) From your post, I think you have grasped many key points about their inner emotion,etc.

There are quite a number of comments about worrying about Josie and Toby and concern about your emotion, the problems you will face,etc. I am sure they are just concern and hope they, incl me, won't pose even more stress to you by doing so. I know you know that and do let us know if we are actually causing any,ok? Don't worry, we won't feel offended because if you don't let us know, I am sure there will be more of these concerns.

Tony, you are doing very well, really! Remember to take a few moments a day to let yourself be at peace or to calm your emotion,etc, doing your hobby,etc.
That will help you. Don't hesitate to seek help if you need and we can share and learn from each other here.

Ben Lee said...

Hi Tony

Be strong for the kids. Take care of yourself and be a strong pillar for Josie and Toby.


writerinresidence said...

Hi Tony,
Your kids wonderful and brilliant, and chips off the old block. Being a single Dad will be tough, but I am confident you'll have a lot of help. If ever you need mine, say the word. I know it's a lot, but I do hope you will keep posting. Wishing you well. Noelle

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tony!

I read about blogging is a good way of letting out own's saddness,emotion and coping with loss of someone,etc. So I guess this is a good way for you because by sharing and saying what you are feeling,etc, you will feel a sense of relief and release of saddness and even stress.

Thanks so much for your update to let us know that and know how you are feeling, the mental tiredness you are undergoing and all other emotion you have.

Tony, understand you have lots of things and emotions you have to deal with, not only your own but also the children especially. Don't give yourself too much pressure and from what you have done, is incredibly amazing. I would say you are even stronger than Shin because to quote what she said "when she is gone, she won't feel the saddness,etc, herself but you all are."...

Making them feel secured and loved are very important, same with telling them is not their fault,etc. So you have been doing very fine with your approach.

Tony, you must remember not to neglect your own emotion and maybe by talking to the husbands who lost their wives can help you greatly too. Don't blame yourself, don't have regrets, if any, because I know Shin won't want you and like she wrote in "About me", she was a happy person and that's possible because of YOU AND JOSIE AND TOBY! Noone is perfect, incl you and me and even Shin (that's what she always said about herself too), so do remember and recall the happy things.

Leighbee said...

Continue to let your spirit guide what feels right...You are already doing a fantastic job and I have no doubt you will continue to do so. Shin was very rightfully proud of the way you all dealt with her condition and the difficult situation you found yourselves in as a result of it....I know beyond all doubt that IF she IS watching over us (jury remains out on that one!) she'll be doing so with a huge smile of love and pride ...

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

I got to know about Shin's condition from Channel 8 Tuesday report and ever since,i have been reading the blog. I am proud of Shin for being able to deal with her condition so well. With her passing,i am sad (even though not any way acquainted)and i wanted to just drop a note to wish that all of you be happy and well.

Anonymous said...

Do take adequate rest to recharge the body as it is important to have enough rest as this is one of natural laws pertaining to good physical health apart from good food. When we are well, we can give the best we can. When we are able to have accurate and wholesome perspectives of issues, it also helps our physical body as well.

Min said...

Hi Tony, it's me again.

I'm glad that you'r keeping us readers updated about your life and how you people are managing yourselves, as well as Josie and Toby. I can feel that you have been putting in a lot of effort into ensuring that all is well for the kids. I believe that Josie and Toby will be as strong and as brave as their mother, Shin.
Tony, stay strong too!

Matz said...

Thank you for still continuing with this blog, Tony. Please take your's been a long journey for you, and a longer one to come. You've been just as brave, and are continuing to be even though you might be crumbling within. All our hugs with you!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

I am the lady with 2 young kids who have lost my husband recently to cancer....

I know no words can totally express what you really feel.

Sometimes you seems to have the energy to press on, keeping everything in the norm and assuming everything is still the same. Yet at the back of your mind, you may think - "how can things still be the same? I have just lost my spouse and my kids has just lost their mummy/daddy. How can our life ever be the same again?"

When people tell me i am strong, how i have to be strong for my kids - i cannot grasp what they are trying to say. What it means by being strong? Not taking my own life to 'die' together with my spouse? Not spending every waking moment weeping? Not fainting during the funeral wake? In my view, I am the way i am now simply because there is no other way back. What can we do to change the situation? Nothing right? So, there is only one way out and that way is to the move towards the future. What other choice do i have? So i wonder, after saying all these, will people still think that I am strong?

Or people say - do what you think is right. Well, how can anything be right when everything is so wrong?

However, life still have to go on. So just continue to press on and live a day by a day.... Every day have it's own worries to think about tomorrow.

Take care.


Anonymous said...

Tony, thanks for keeping us updated, but, as other bloggers have said - make sure you take whatever time you need away from the blog(although I know you're also doing this as a record for the kids later, and it's better to do it while it's fresh in your mind). Now, I have to say on Shin's behalf that there are a few spelling mistakes in your post!! I know Shin would have wanted to point them out to you and make you correct them! Only joking - but I know if she's still reading the blog now she will be desperate to get her black marker pen out and correct your work! Mel xxxxxxxxx