Violet has recently been begun to grapple with the idea of death. David’s very lovely grandmother Joyce (one of Violet’s middle names) died earlier this year and after some thought we took Violet to the funeral. Violet and I also came across a dead bird while on a walk and she has been talking about it frequently.
David and I have never hidden my illness from Violet or anyone really. If conversation takes me to a place where I would need to lie about my health or our life to not mention it, I mention it. I try to be relaxed about it and not weird although I’m not sure I always succeed. Probably reflects my general style though – prone to over-sharing, a bit odd but hopefully charming!
However, given how young she is, we’ve always dealt very much in the present with Violet. We talk about my bad germs and bad cells and how my medicines make me sick and bald but keep the bad germs under control. We reassure her that my doctors are very clever and look after me. We’ve never promised her I will be okay but neither do we think she needs to know every detail.
I recently came across an amazing article which perfectly articulated why we don’t plan to tell Violet that I have a terminal illness until my death is much more imminent.
Subterfuge was essential for survival—not just the literal, existential kind, but survival of the spirit. Our kids would not be robbed of stability; protecting their sense of the ordinary was everything. The ground would stay steady, and we would extend the runway for as long as possible.
Some might not have made the same decision, believing that the girls had a right to know they should savor diminishing moments. But Marla didn’t want her girls to savor; she wanted them to sail, and that meant less information—not a lie, but a lacuna. Marla refused to let family time together feel too precious, too heightened, too sad.
My first serious test to this approach came yesterday as I drove Violet to a classmate’s birthday party. She brought up the dead bird and Granny Joyce and then said with a hint of question in her voice: ‘But mummies don’t die”. I didn’t answer and instead distracted her with some passing thing, thankful she was in the back and couldn’t see me fight back tears.
Every time I have replayed this conversation in my head I’ve felt the same stab of pain and nausea. But as I’ve continued to think about it , I think that we have made the right decision for Violet and our family. How we tell our stories to ourselves and others matters very much. I will not let my story rob her of her happy and safe present. Instead I hope that it is this happy and safe present that will let her deal with whatever may come.