In the early, most horrible days, a very trusted child psychologist gave me advice on how to reassure my daughter that she wouldn’t also lose me or her father.
“Tell her that everything is going to be OK. Tell her nothing is going to happen to you.” I knew she was right, too. This wasn’t the time to keep it real for my daughter. She, no, we all, were traumatized and terrified. I needed to be able to shore her up. I was supposed to make her feel safe.
And I did. For awhile, anyway. Over the course of many months, we slowly started coming back from the edge. However, the questions never stopped coming. “When will you die? What will I do when I lose you? Please don’t ever die, mama.”
And I stopped lying to her. I didn’t break it down insensitively, but I was honest about the fact that death is a part of life. I reminded her that because mama and papa made Jay, we all have a bit of Jay in us. And when her grandmother died 18 months later, I reminded her that we are part Gramma. I tell her that yes, I will die one day, but that I take good care of myself and that I am doing everything I can to lead a long, healthy life. I don’t tell her that I’m going to live to be a hundred. She’s seen firsthand that we truly don’t know when our time is up. It’s not my job to bullshit her until she’s an adult. It’s my job to remind her how precious life is.
I also tell her that knowing that we all die makes me love everyone around me that much more. It makes me do things that sometimes scare me. It makes me do things that exhilarate me. It makes me say things that I would have been afraid to utter a few years ago (and a few years ago I still said way more than I should have, so this might be a problem). Many friendships have deepened, fading friendships faded away completely, and I have had deeper conversations with my most cherished people than I think was ever possible before. No, losing my son and mother were not “blessings in disguise.” I just learned a few things.
We hide death from our children. We teach them that only bad people die. Or that babies never die. Or that you’ll die when you’re 100 years old. I was talking to a friend the other day who said, “I love your blog. I mean, I can’t read it all the time because it makes me too sad, but it’s so great.” I felt sorry that she couldn’t even deal with my blog. Most grown adults tell me, “I can’t believe you’re able to stand here and talk to me like this. I never would have survived.” I absolutely hate that statement. A grown adult, speaking to me like a 5 year old would. The lies they were told as children are still looping around in their minds 40 years later: “I’m glad that little thing called Death isn’t going to happen to me. I just couldn’t handle it. Whew!”
A couple of years ago, a wild, unknown animal caught a rat in our backyard and left the carnage on one of our stone steps. Of course, my daughter found it immediately. Instead of ushering her back inside, we looked at it together. It was a complete mess. Maggots were eating it, and ants were eating the maggots. She was fascinated by the whole thing, so I decided to turn it into a lesson about life. The rat was dead. Part of it was food for another animal, who got energy from that food to go do other things. Maybe it fed its babies. The maggots are eating the food and will become flies later. The ants are eating the maggots, which will give them energy to aerate the soil. The actual rat is dead, but the energy derived from that rat is keeping other living things going. The rat continues to help make the world go round, even though it’s not alive anymore.
We continued to come back every few days to check on the rat. Eventually, it disappeared completely. The rat was now gone, but not before impacting countless other beings on this Earth. And while I may pull them up one day, there is a decent collection of moss and weeds where that rat once lay. Life.
This is the way death should be explained to a child. It’s not just something you experience at the end of your life. It’s all around us, and is a necessary part of living. We eat plants and animals, all of which died. We receive that energy and that allows us to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Without death, there is no life.
I’m still afraid of death. I will lie to myself just so I can get to sleep at night. Leaving my children too early is my greatest fear. But I know the truth, and my deep seeded fear is not going to make me shroud my children from what is not only a natural, but necessary, part of our world. I truly believe they will grow to be happier, healthier adults understanding that death isn’t something to look away from. In fact, it is only by looking at death realistically are we able to really understand life.