Still groggy from an unpleasant and restlessness night, I paused to take a breath and then called my kids to come into the dining room. Most of the night was spent trying to figure out the best way to share the bad news with my children. While I stared at the ceiling from my bed, I ran through a few scenarios and ways to provide fatherly comfort and give advice.
As they assembled and sat down next to each other, I knelt beside them as my wife held our 15-month-old on her lap. I touched their knees and told them their Nanu (our Anglicized version of Nonno – Italian for grandfather) had passed away. My wife and I put our arms around them and hugged them and told them how much Nanu had loved them and he knew how much my kids loved him in return.
I don’t know what kind of response I expected to get from them. My step-dad was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer in September and so we’ve had 8 months of praying, hoping, and preparing. My step-dad and my children were close – they spent countless hours chopping wood, cleaning fields, riding on back-hos, and playing around on various other construction equipment. And so I sat there with my arms around them waiting for their response. Tears slowly welled up in my 6 ½ year old daughter’s eyes, and soon she was sobbing uncontrollably. My 8 ½ year old son, who was especially close to his Nanu, stood up and walked away. He didn’t display any emotions; he just simply stood up and walked away.
The response from my oldest was puzzling to me. Because of his close relationship with my step-dad, I expected a big response. I was prepared to say a bunch of nice things about the two of them, share some fun stories, talk about how much they loved each other and that Nanu is in a much better place now. I had this father/son moment already played out in my head and was ready for it, but I didn’t get the opportunity. My wife and I shared stories with our daughter and let her cry on our shoulders and held her tight. After a good cry she was okay, but I was concerned for my oldest.
My oldest son is shy and has always kept his emotions to himself, so I’m not sure why I was so taken back by his lack of display. I so badly wanted to be that great father who says the perfect thing at the most horrible time and so I tried to get him to open up throughout the day, but it only annoyed him. Then finally, right before bedtime and after we read stories and prayed, he said, “Things aren’t going to be the same without Nanu.” I agreed and then tried to get him to share more, but he wouldn’t. The next couple of days were the same. A bit of sharing here and there, but not much. He prayed for my mom at night and at meals he prayed for my step-dad’s children and my sister, but never for us. Then, in the oddest of places, alongside the dairy section of the grocery store, I saw a tear in his eye and he quickly wiped it away. I asked if he was okay and he said, “I don’t want people to see me sad.” I told him it was okay and he said he knew that. I hugged him next to the yogurt and cheese and kissed his head as few tears escaped his eyes. I held him as long as he let me, then he pushed me away and walked up the aisle. That was our father/son grieving moment.
The fact that my kids handle death differently than me shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. After all, they are people with their own identities and everyone has different ways of handling things. Even though my son grieves differently than me, I must respect his boundaries and acknowledge his grief when it surfaces. And when it does, I’ll be ready.