My son Ben is notorious for pushing his luck at bedtime – one more story, one more drink of water, one more trip to the washroom. So when I heard noise coming from his room a few nights ago, at first I rolled my eyes… until I realized what I was hearing were sobs. I rushed into the room: “Ben, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”
And with tears streaming down his face, he cried, “Mommy, I want to live forever! I don’t want to die, and I’m scared!”
It was the day after his sixth birthday party. He should be worried about whether he’ll forget his lunch on his way to school, or what he should do the next time he and a friend argue. He shouldn’t be weeping on my shoulder about his own mortality. Should he?
We’ve had conversations about death with Ben before. My husband Sean and I both feel it's important not to conceal hard truths from kids, so I had my first discussion about dying with Ben when he was barely two, when we came down for breakfast and found one of our cats lying dead on the kitchen floor. (It’s a testament to how hard a topic this is that I just second-guessed what I wrote – “Is it necessary to say ‘lying dead’? Everyone will know what I mean…”) At that age, though, talking about death is just explaining a process: Tasha’s body stopped working, so she’s not alive any more, and no, she’s not coming back.
It’s easier when they don’t really understand what that means.
We had to talk about it more, though, because of Sean’s line of work; he's a minister. When you’re a minister, you can get a desperate, tearful phone call at any time, and if a family needs you, you go – even if you’re in the middle of dinner, or if you’re about to sit down for a family movie night. We never wanted Ben to think that Sean was leaving for no good reason, or that someone else’s family was more important than him. So we’ve told him many times, after the phone call and the quiet, solemn conversation, but before Sean heads out the door, that someone has died, and their families are very sad. That Daddy helps them figure out what to do and tries to help them feel a bit better, but that they will miss the person who’s gone very much.
It’s easier when you’re talking about someone else.
Ben started asking about what would happen when he died when he was about five. Where would he go? Would we be there? Would our cats come too? How long before it happened? What would it be like?
People think it’s easier to talk about these things when there is religion in the family. Sean’s a minister, after all – isn’t the answer “we go to heaven, yay for God”? And I suppose for some families it is that easy, but it isn’t for us. We always make it clear to our kids that there is more than one way to think, more than one thing to believe. We also always tell our kids what we don’t know. And while Sean is firmly Christian, I’m a bit more loosely spiritual: I feel that there is something out there that gives shape and meaning to the universe, but I don’t know how to define that – or what it means for individual human consciousness. So if I’m going to tell my kids the truth – like when Ben looked at me for the first time a little over a year ago and said, nervously, “Mommy, what happens when we die?” – the only honest answer I can give is “We don’t know.”
That’s such a hard answer to give, especially when two little eyes are gazing at you silently begging for reassurance. But it’s the truth. We don’t know. All that we know is that, when the body stops working and the neurons stop firing, the part of us that is US isn’t in that body any more.
Ben’s most recent questions were prompted by learning that, some day, the sun will fade away, and anything living on the Earth will be gone. I remember that moment from my own childhood: the sudden destruction of the last mental defense, the idea that maybe, somehow, people will figure out how to keep a body going forever and then it won’t happen to me. But if even the planet, the sun, the universe will die…there’s nothing left to protect you. And that thought process ends with a six-year-old boy crying in his bed in the dark.
In what could have been one of the bigger parenting blunders I’ve ever made, I almost tried to reassure him by saying, “Oh, Ben, it’s okay, the sun won’t explode until LONG AFTER YOU’RE GONE.” Yes, Mom, very soothing. I also know I can’t say, “You’ll live for a long, long time” – because even though I feel a cold stab in my heart at the very thought of this, we can’t pretend that’s a guarantee: my husband has buried two kids under 15 in the past year. I can’t promise him a long life. I can’t promise him I’m not going anywhere until after he’s grown up. I can’t promise him that, when it does come, he will go someplace wonderful where all his dreams come true and everyone who loves him is waiting.
Here’s what I can do: I can climb into his bed next to him and hug him tight. I can tell him that I don’t know, and that it scares me too. I can tell him that lots of people believe something about us goes on after the body falls away, and that maybe when he gets older he’ll decide he believes that too. I can tell him that I hope that nothing will happen to any of us soon…but that sooner or later it will, and that those of us who are still here will take care of one another and love one another and that we will get through it. I can tell him that I love him.
It’s not an easy conversation to have, and if you’re reading this, you may feel that we tell our kids too much. That kids are innocent of death for such a short time, and what’s the harm in hiding it from them, in using words like “passed” or “gone,” in telling them with certainty that there is a heaven and it’s a place with angels and harps and fluffy white clouds.
I say that’s doing our kids a disservice. Someday, someone they care about will be gone, even if it is “just” a pet or a neighbor they waved to on their way home from school or a grandparent who lived far away. If you think those moments won’t affect them, I think you’re fooling yourself. They deserve to know what is going on: why you’re taking the dog to the vet today, why the ambulance was at the house next door, why you’re speaking in hushed tones about Grandpa’s last doctor’s appointment. And if you don’t fill them in, they will figure it out – or hear it from someone else. Wouldn’t you rather they hear about it from you?
Like many things in parenting, it isn’t easy, but it’s important. And after the conversation is done, you can get back to the easy part: loving them with all your heart and soul, for every precious day you have.
(photo: Getty Images)