I did a favour for a friend a little while ago. She lost her mother to cancer after a long and painful battle. Numb with grief, she marched through the endless series of jobs that needed to be done to bury and remember the woman who had brought her into the world. The hardest job of all though, was explaining to her own daughter where Grandma had gone and why they couldn’t go see her anymore. It was all too much for a child to comprehend, it’s hard enough for an adult. Tearfully, my friend said her daughter wasn’t sleeping, eating or playing like usual – and with the day of the funeral drawing close, my friend asked me if I would take her daughter after the service and get her out of the house and away from the somber-faced adults for the afternoon. I agreed quickly. It was the least I could do. Besides, her daughter holds a deep adoration for my dog that has gotten us past many a teary tantrum, so maybe I held the perfect distraction.
The afternoon of the funeral the little one was dropped off and we waved her mum off conspiratorially as I pulled a couple of chocolate frogs from my pocket. So far, so good. We demolished our treats and then decided we could take the dog for a walk. We put his harness on, laced up our shoes and hit the park nearby – the pooch tolerating being walked in circles around a swing-set most admirably. But then my little friend, who had been quieter than usual, stopped and screwed up her face in concentration. Woofa pulled at his lead so she handed it to me and tugged at my arm. “What’s grateful?” she asked out of nowhere. Big brown eyes fixed on me most seriously.
I have answered plenty of questions for this young Miss before – spanning a range of issues. I’ve covered gender and the arts with “Did all the Wiggles really used to be boys?” Science with “Why does your dog always lick me?” “Why does chicken poo make vegetables grow?” Music with “What are you listening to?” But I didn’t think we were up to anything this deep. A fleeting thought raced through my mind… The work-mate who had a bad day recently and told me I should just be grateful he’d managed to put pants on that morning. That is indeed something I was grateful for, but not really adequate for a situation like this, and definitely not age appropriate.
In an effort to buy time I asked, “Why do you want to know that?” “Because maybe grateful means people go away and I can never see them again,” was the mumbled answer. As I looked at her crinkled brow I realised there had been a lot of talk around her house about being grateful for Grandma over the past week. Okay. Well. It’s pretty much the exact opposite really, but I could see I had a lot of work to do, and she deserved a way better explanation than one involving pants.
Grabbing her hand and sitting on a bench with the dog between us. I started by asking her when you say thank you to someone, why do you do that? After we’d worked through the obvious answer (because mummy tells me to) we got to the good stuff – because someone did something nice for me or they did a thing that makes me happy. “So saying thank-you – or feeling thankful – is like grateful,” I explained. “You feel glad someone has done something. Like, I’ll bet you are really glad your Grandma was such a nice Grandma so you feel grateful for her. And we say grateful, not ‘gladful’ because the English language is funny. It doesn’t mean she will go away. You can, and should, be very grateful for things all the time. It’s a very good thing to tell people or show them you are grateful, maybe by doing nice things for them.” She seemed pretty happy with this explanation and snuggled into Woofa to pat him. “I am grateful Woofa is my friend!” she exclaimed triumphantly. “Yes, that’s it,” I said. “How does it make you feel that Woofa is your friend?” I asked. “Happy and fluffy like his fur”, came the reply.
So we sat for a bit, just enjoying the sunshine. My little mate patting her friend the dog and me feeling grateful that kids ask the darndest questions. Because I think all too often I forget to feel grateful for the little things. I get too caught up in work and life and things that bother me to appreciate the good – and the effort people are making. But how to explain to her that sometimes grown-ups get sad because they forget to show that they are grateful or they don’t say thank you? And sometimes then we do lose things and people that are really important to us and we live to regret because we didn’t feel or show gratitude soon enough, or in a way that resonates with another person.
I think we might save that chat for another time… But from now on, I’m going to try and show more gratitude if you make me feel ‘happy and fluffy’.