The morning before Shawn died, my dad woke my children and got them ready for school. Claire sat at the kitchen counter and ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast while my dad wiped the kitchen counter. When she had gone to bed, both Shawn and I had still been in the house, and she was confused. My dad told her that we’d spent the night at the hospital. The house was quiet, and Claire didn’t say anything as she ate.
She looked up after she finished, and with a furrowed brow asked my father, “Grandpa Tom, is Dad going to die?”
He didn’t mince words. “Yes,” he said, “he will probably die soon.”
“Oh,” she said. She methodically ate her bowl of cereal in silence and when she finished, my dad picked it up and set it in the sink. He waited for any other questions, but none came, so he handed her the backpack she loved, the one covered with sparkles, and they headed to the door. They walked to school with little conversation.
At the hospital, Shawn was dying as I laid next to him, stroking his face as I gripped his hand.
The next day, I came downstairs to get a cup of coffee. I had always been a morning person, though the anxiety that awoke me wasn’t something I was used to. My body was heavy and slow, though my heart beat as though I was running. I stepped slowly down the stairs. It wasn’t yet light, but my dad was in the kitchen eating a heaping bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats. He stopped when I entered. “Ugh,” I said, sitting down.
“I know,” he replied. I asked him how the kids were yesterday, and if they knew that Shawn had died. They didn’t, because they’d been asleep once he got home from the hospital. Then he told me what he had said the day before to Claire. “Did you tell her anything else?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t elaborate, but I told her the truth.”
He started the coffee and I listened to it drip into my cup, the sputtering of the hot liquid making the only sound in the room. My heart was beating really fast now, in a way that made my head feel light. I leaned over the counter and tried to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth in the way that yoga teachers always told me to do.
I knew I had to wake the kids soon and tell them that their father was dead.
He set the cup of coffee in front of me, the steam hitting my eyelashes. I took a long sip and looked at the wall, I suppose waiting for some sort of advice. He leaned against the far corner, his arms crossed, looking down and saying nothing.
I knew he was trying to figure out how to help me with what we both knew I had to do next. Still, he didn’t offer advice about how I was going to tell the kids that their father was dead. He was going to let me handle it in whatever way I thought was best. But how were you supposed to say it? My dad had said six words to me, and that was all.
I played them over and over in my head for years, and I thought about them that morning, yet again. It mattered what I was going to say, especially for Claire. She was going to remember. She might hear those words on repeat for many years.
Your dad died last night. That was what I needed to say.
I knew Claire would take the news the hardest. She was the only one who could really conceptualize what death meant, and she was the one who had seen Shawn the night before, vomiting blood into a bucket. It had happened as she was going to bed. I’d run up the stairs with great haste and in my panic and fear had said, “Get some towels and help me.” She’d gotten the towels for me and then stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched as I helped get Shawn comfortable again. Afterwards, he’d laid his head back on the slate blue recliner where he had been for the entire day, exhausted. I’d thrown the towels in a pile by the stairs and told Claire to go to bed. Without any argument, she’d retreated to her little room just a few steps away, glancing just a bit over her shoulder. Her pajamas hung loosely on her slight frame, an image that remained in my head.
Now, I sat at the edge of her bed. The sun peeked through her blinds. It was going to be a beautiful day, I thought, and I took a minute to feel the sun on my skin and breathe before I shook her slightly. She usually woke up very slowly, but the minute I touched her, she jerked awake. “What happened to dad?” she asked before I could say anything.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” I said to her. “He died last night.”
“What?” she asked with wide eyes.
“Yes, sweetie, he died. Daddy is in heaven.”
Her face froze. It was like she couldn’t fully process such news. I actually saw it hit her after what seemed like a full minute but was probably five seconds. “No, no, no!” she screamed and sank down in her bed.
I hugged her and I told her I loved her and I said, “I know, baby, I know.” Her breathing was quick, as though she couldn’t catch her breath. “No,” she said again, softly.
At that moment, I could hear my dad say the words: “Your mother killed herself last night.” I could remember the feeling, how I just couldn’t accept that they were true. “No, no, no!” I’d shrieked at him before falling to my knees on the tiled floor of a kitchen far away.
You think when you get news like this as a kid—whether you are 8 or 19—that you’d have some sort of kid-like response. Cry uncontrollably, or hit something. But both Claire and I reacted in the same way to the loss of one of our parents.
We refused to believe it.