But then she realized that death meant no longer being, and it became a little more important to avoid. When her sister would run towards the street, she would scream at her to get back. She would talk about how she shouldn’t do something dangerous so that she won’t die. And slowly, this started to turn into a realization that death is not just a consequence of accidents, but something that happens when people grow old. We would see a story on the nightly news about a famous person who had died and she would say, “Do you know how I know they died? Because they looked really old.”
I distinctly remember the evening we were sitting in her room, reading Little House on the Prairie, and we started talking about Laura Ingalls Wilder. My daughter asked if Laura had died and I said, “Yes, but a long, long time ago.” She paused for a moment, and then I saw it. I saw a panic wash over her face as she put it all together. She said, “But… everybody can’t live forever…. Am I gonna die too?” My stomach twisted into knots as I read her face. She clearly knew the answer was yes. She had figured it out. And as much as I wanted to, I knew I couldn’t lie to her. I said, “Yes. But not for a long, LONG time,” and she exploded into tears.
It was terrible. It was one of the most blatantly obvious moments in which I was watching my child grow up before my very eyes. I was watching her experience the sort of pain and fear that we so often try to shield our children from. I tried to hug her and assure her that everything would be okay. I panicked and blurted out something about heaven, but she was so upset that she couldn’t really focus on what I was saying. All she heard was that people leave and go somewhere else, and that definitely didn’t help things at all. So, I tried to change the subject and eventually got her settled down.
I knew it would only be a matter of time before she would also ask if I would die, and her dad as well. I knew this because she started saying things like, “My dad will NEVER get old.” There were a couple of occasions in the car when I’d hear her ask from the back, “Mom? Are you going to get old?” and then I’d quickly change the subject. (Who wants to tackle the subject when you’re about to go to the grocery store?)
Then, yesterday, on the way home from the grocery, I heard her ask again. I looked at her in the rearview mirror and said, “Sweetie, why are you asking me that question?” and she replied, “Because I need to know.” I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, sweetie,” and as her eyes welled up with tears I added, “But not for a very long time.” She began sobbing. And there was nothing I could do about it. I let her cry for a few excruciatingly long minutes, and then I changed the subject to what she might want for her birthday. Good parenting, I know.
But then it started again last night at bedtime. She came into the living room with tears in her eyes, saying that she didn’t want me or her dad to die. She asked to sleep in our bed, so I tucked her in and then lay down beside her. I asked her to talk to me about what she thinking and feeling and she said, “It’s just so sad that all kids will die, and all their moms will die. Everyone will die and then the Earth will be so empty.” She looked at me with eyes that were pleading for an answer – any answer – that would make her words untrue. And I couldn’t give that to her, no matter how much I wanted to.
So what did I do? I held her. I held her close as she clung to my clothes, sobbing. I told her how much I loved her and I told her that eventually, she would feel better. And I promised to stay there beside her until she fell asleep. As difficult as those minutes were for her, they were not a piece of cake for me either. I distinctly remember having the same experience as a child. There were several times where I was laying in my dark bedroom at night, and I felt consumed with fear of dying. I was afraid I was sick or had cancer and that I was dying and no one knew it. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I would imagine being in a coffin under the ground. I was maybe in 3rd grade. The only thing that made me feel better was being with my parents, in their bedroom, with a light on.
More troubling than watching my daughter struggle with this agonizing realization, was the fact that I had a pretty good idea of what exactly she was feeling at that moment. I don’t know how we all make peace with the fact that one day we will die. But somehow, most of us do. Questions about what happens after death will come, and we’ll have lots of talks about what people believe. But my job last night, and in the days to come, was not to just make her feel better. My job was to be present for her. My job was to remain calm and centered when she wasn’t. My job was to love.
As parents, we need to remember that sometimes. Especially in those times when the hurt is the strongest.
Have you experienced this realization with your own children? How did you help them through it?