Bronwyn Marquardt’s father-in-law died in February 2005, after a long battle with a painful illness. Here she talks about the impact on her children, Chase, now five, and Harmonie, three.

Whenever our family gets together, my toddler Harmonie asks: “Where Papa gone?” At first, her question was upsetting, particularly for my husband and his Mum. But soon they realised that, with the innocence of a child, she was just asking the question that everyone was thinking, and in her own small way, keeping his memory alive.

We thought long and hard about how to explain Papa’s death to Chase and Harmonie. It was the first major loss in their lives. I know it won’t be the last, and to me, that just makes it even more important that we handle it right. I know that the way we grieve, will in part teach them how to grieve. And anything we can do to help them handle sadness and loss, will help them negotiate the often-rocky journey that is life.

Though he was just 58, Ian’s death had not been unexpected. He had been terminally ill, mostly disabled, and in and out of hospital for years. He suffered unbelievable pain with unbelievable courage.

But that didn’t make his death any less painful, or ‘for the best’, as some well-meaning family and friends believed. It was a massive loss to our family, particularly my husband Kyle. He and Ian had a particularly special relationship. They had worked together, running a successful family business, since Kyle was a teenager. They were also best friends. Ian was best man at our wedding. They saw each other nearly every day, and talked and emailed constantly. Their relationship was not perfect – slammed doors and shouted arguments were a speciality – but importantly, they made up quickly, and were always there for each other when it mattered. He was a wonderful father-in-law, and an amazing, indulgent grandfather. Ian was a loyal, irreverent man, who loved his kids and grandchildren, and wanted desperately to live.

Helping Kyle through the death of his father, and being there for his family, was – and still is – a challenge for me. But relationships are about leaning on each other, so I think I did okay when it came to being there for Kyle, his sister, and their Mum. I could handle being supportive as a partner and friend. Yet as a mother, I’ve felt helpless and unsure. Sadly, I know most children experience death at some stage – the loss of a sibling, a baby, a parent, grandparent, friend, even a much-loved family pet. But this was my first time dealing with it as a mother.

How to you explain death to your children? How do you explain something that you don’t fully understand yourself?

In many ways, we were lucky – if lucky is knowing that someone you care about is soon to leave this world. We were able to seek advice, and talk about the way we would handle Ian’s illness, and eventually, his death. And so, throughout Ian’s illness, we tried to be as honest as possible with the kids. We explained that Papa was very sick, but he was trying very much to get better and the doctors and nurses were helping him. They were content with that. They saw him as often as possible, climbing up on to his bed and into the crook of his arms, sharing drinks and watching TV. Even the usually mischievous Chase would sit quietly with his Papa, telling stories for ages (which he still remembers, thankfully).

In many ways, that helped prepare them for his passing. We explained that Papa was so sick that this time, the doctors and nurses couldn’t fix him. That he had gone to a special place where he wouldn’t be in any more pain. And that although we would miss him terribly, he was not really gone, because he exists in our hearts and our minds. Although my husband’s family is not religious, we all agreed it made sense for us to think of Papa as being in heaven, looking down on all of us. That has been an enormous comfort to the kids, and Chase immediately dubbed him Papa Angel (or Angle as Harmonie likes to say).

Now Chase will often sit and talk to Papa, though he is still frustrated that Papa does not talk back. In the first eight months or so, there were periods of rebellious, out-of-character behaviour (his way of expressing his grief and confusion). There still are tears, and an endless stream of questions, at sometimes-inappropriate times. To adults, the questions may seem graphic – Chase wants to know if Papa can eat now, if angels have skeletons, if Papa can walk now, and if his “ouchies” are better. But we know they are the result of a child trying to understand the unexplainable.

After much thought and discussion, we decided not to take the children to Ian’s funeral. Generally, this was against advice and some evidence that kids of all ages should be given the opportunity to say goodbye to the person they love. We dont know for sure if we made the right choice, but at the time, it felt right.

Our reasoning was that Chase was only four, and Harmonie two, at the time of the funeral. I knew their Dad, Nana, Auntie and other loved ones would be incredibly upset. I didnt feel the kids needed to see the outpouring of pain and grief, and I didnt want them to worry about us all. I also knew that Kyle and his Mum were concerned about how they would cope during the funeral. I felt they would be able to grieve “better”, and I would be better able to be strong for them, if we werent worrying about how the kids were doing as well.

So on the day, without making a big fuss about the funeral, we sent the kids to kindergarten and childcare respectively (their teachers obviously were aware of what was happening). Afterwards, we picked them up early and took them to their Nanas home where friends and relatives had gathered to remember Ian. By now, people had themselves together, and the kids were a welcome distraction for all. They also felt an important part of the proceedings.

Im not saying we hid our grief – not at all. In fact, Kyles sadness in particular, has been an important learning tool for the kids, and it has brought them closer together. They understand that at times Daddy is sad because he misses Papa – and these times are perfect openings for the children to talk about how they are feeling as well.After the funeral, we took them to Papas final earthly resting place on their own, and they held their own little ceremony, where they told him how much they loved him. That seemed to work, and Chase often asks to go there when he feels the need.Even now, almost a year since Ians death, the repercussions are being felt, and the support of teachers and carers during this time has been wonderful.Recently, one of Chases teachers mentioned she noticed him sitting quietly, gazing into space, after his afternoon nap. Thinking it was unlike him, she asked what was wrong. “Im sad, because my Papa died,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “Why can I only see him when Im asleep?” She was amazed he could express his feelings so well, but felt almost as upset as we were at the sadness he is still trying to come to terms with. She also reassured us that as parents were are doing well. And when youre a parent, thats all you can do. Do the research, listen to others, but in the end, go with what you feel is right for your family.

Throughout it all, we’ve tried to help our children . We’ve read books, looked at photos and talked about our feelings. And personally, I’ve found that talking seems to be the key. I often listen to Chase and Harmonie chattering together. “Papa an Angle now,” Harmonie will say. “Yes, Harmonie, Papa is an angel,” Chase will reply. “It’s sad we can’t see him, but we can still talk to him, can’t we?” Papa keep monsters away,” Harmonie goes on. “I see him.” “I can’t,” Chase will say sadly. “Mummy, can babies see angels?” “Yes, babies can see Angles,” Harmonie exclaims. And so it goes. Who knows how much of it is real, but in many cases, I’ve found the kids’ own take on death has comforted us all.

Looking back, I still don’t know for sure if we handled it the right way, but at the time, it was the approach that worked for us. Now, when Harmonie asks where Papa is, she answers her own question. “Papa an Angle now. Watch over me.”And we really believe that is true.

Bronwyn Marquardt is a busy working Mum who lives with her husband, children, dogs and cats. She is also a writer with 19 years experience in journalism, whose work has been published in magazines and newspapers throughout Australia and overseas. Bronwyn has taught feature writing at several universities, and her first book Happily Ever Parted, will be published by New Holland later this year. She is currently working on three more books, but her most important project is her family.