Child Abuse

My Son Is Scared Of Dying And I Don’t Know What To Say

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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)

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