One of the most painful things I’ve ever had to worry about is how to help my son deal with his grief.
At five years old, one of the constants in his life, aside from me and Oneal, has been his grandfather, whom he calls Papa, or Papa Boy. Ever since Lucas was born, he’s lived in this house with Papa. Papa would take him and play with him when I needed to work or do chores. Papa would buy him ice cream, or chicharon, or peel oranges and bananas for him. When we lived in Antipolo for a year, Lucas and Papa missed each other very much.
When we moved back to Papa’s house, they were both so happy to be together again. A few times, Lucas showered in Papa’s bathroom, and wanted to sleep in Papa’s bed! Some mornings, after breakfast, they would sit on the sofa together, on their devices, snuggling. Papa would fall asleep, and Lucas was rest his head on Papa’s shoulder or lap.
We had to warn Lucas not to be rough with Papa. We told him Papa had been sick for a long time, and we were going back to Papa’s house to take care of Papa. We told him if he was going to hug Papa, he had to do it gently.
When Dad had his stroke in September, Lucas and I stayed home, and we sent a bag of groceries and supplies to the hospital. I asked Lucas to write in a card for Papa. Oneal said Papa cried when he saw the card. I found the card among Dad’s things when I started cleaning up in his room.
When Ron brought Dad home from the hospital in November, and we had to get a caregiver, Lucas was so angry at Zai. “Tell Ate to leave the house! I will take care of Papa! Not Ate!” I had to calm him down, and explain that we could not take care of Papa by ourselves anymore, that Papa needed diapers, and feeding, and help taking his medicine. I had to explain that Mommy and Daddy couldn’t do that while working, and taking care of Lucas, and cooking and cleaning. I told him that Ate would help us with that so that we wouldn’t get tired and sick. It took a while, but eventually he was OK with Zai. He would hang out in Dad’s room, sitting on the bed if Dad was awake, reading or watching on his phone. If Dad was asleep, he would sit on a swivel chair next to Zai while she studied or played games on her phone.
We were woefully unprepared when Dad passed away. We should have talked about what to tell Lucas, how to explain death, how to help him understand and cope, but truth be told we were just not ready. It was such a struggle to explain that Papa was not going to wake up anymore. It shamed me to tell him that the men from Holy Trinity arrived to take care of Papa’s body, and he was so angry when he saw them taking the body away.
That night, when Oneal got home and we started praying the novena, Lucas went through all the stages of grief. He got angry when we kept saying, pray for the soul of Papa Boy. He said, stop saying that, stop saying those bad words! He was angry with the team from Holy Trinity. He said, I didn’t want them to take Papa, I didn’t want Papa to go to heaven. He was crying so hard and kicking. “I miss Papa, I want to hug Papa.”
I could only hold him and try to console him.
The next day, we went to Holy Trinity for the cremation. I asked Lucas if he wanted to see Papa. I told him it’s okay if he didn’t want to see Papa. But he said he wanted to see, so I picked him up and we looked at Papa through the window. I reminded him that Papa loves him very much, and it’s okay to be sad. He said, I miss Papa. He was sad, but not crying anymore.
I feared that my lack of faith had failed him, because I had no words to explain to him heaven and hell, souls and prayer, eternal life and all that. It was the words in our prayers that seemed to trigger his pain, because every time he heard us say, “Pray for the soul of Papa Boy” he would start getting upset.
That first day at Holy Trinity, I lost count of how many times I had to explain to Lucas that Papa is gone. I had to explain over and over why we have to pray, why we had Mass. By the end of the day, I just gave up and burst into tears, and Oneal had to take Lucas and talk to him.
That week, Lucas would cry in his sleep, or scream or shriek. During the day he was fine, because he was with his cousin Nixi, and they would play, or talk to the visitors who came to the wake. That weekend, my mother and my brother stayed with us, and then we visited some friends. We were so grateful for the distraction.
We fully expected the breakdowns and the bouts of melancholy the following week. Lucas had no school, no Ate Nixi, no Loola and Nunu. It was just the three of us at home. Sure enough, almost daily, he would randomly tell us, “I miss Papa.” I would tell him, “I know, it’s okay.” I would tell him, he can talk to Papa anytime, he can pray, he can tell Papa he loves him and misses him.
“Why did Papa have to die?” he would ask. “Maybe Ate Nixi and I can go to heaven and see Papa,” he would say. “I’m sad about Papa,” he would say at dinner or at bedtime. “We should stop praying so Papa’s soul comes back to his body,” he said a few times.
One night, he began with his usual, “I miss Papa,” and it quickly evolved to being angry that the kuyas took Papa away, that he should have fought them so they wouldn’t take Papa. I apologized to him, for not telling him that they were taking Papa away. I told him it was really hard for Mommy and Daddy too, that we were also sad. He was angry and he was crying so hard, and all I could do was hold him close. “I miss Papa!” he shouted in my ear as he cried. “I want Papa back!”
I didn’t know what else to do, what else to tell him.
We had seen Inside Out just a few weeks before, and I reminded him about that. I reminded him about Joy and Sadness, about Riley’s memories, and how some memories could be both sad and happy, and that was okay. We got to talking about short-term memory, and core memories, and how his memories of Papa could be both happy and sad. I thanked him for telling us how he felt, and I reminded him that he could always tell us how he was feeling, especially if he was angry or upset.
That seemed to help (thank you, Pixar).
I have no doubt we’ll be having more of these conversations over 2022. I have no doubt I will get tired, upset and frustrated by his many questions. But I also know that even if all we can do is hold him, he will always come to us and tell us how he’s feeling, and I guess that’s all we can do for now.