T asked what the word god meant the other day. Talk about feeling unprepared.
“Some people believe that there is a higher being who looks over humans. The higher being is god.” Ugh, a four year old can’t comprehend that. But it was all I had. The conversation meandered until it somehow reached death.
Eventually I asked, “What do you think happens after you die?”
He looked at me like I was an idiot. “I will decay.”
In the wise words of the Dead Milkmen, “Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick!”
When we were at my folk’s this summer T and my Dad watched some show on PBS Kids. That night T woke with nightmares about Decay. I assumed Decay was a bad guy on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or something. Nope. The show they watched was about science. There was a jack-o-lantern in a classroom and after a period of time they showed it all collapsed and decaying. Unbeknownst to my father T was basically scarred for life by the rotting pumpkin. Little man talks about decay all the time now. The nightmares have also continued.
Cut to bedtime last night. Z was on campus at a lecture given by Tony Kushner (according to Z it was awesome) so I put both boys down. At first everything was normal with T. I got him ice water. We read a book. He turned off the light. I tucked him in and snuggled beside him. I started to sing I’ll Fly Away.
“Some bright morning when this life is over I will fly away” Didn’t get much further than that when T burst into tears. “I don’t want to die!” he choked out. “Stop singing that song!”
We’ve been singing that to him since he was born, it is one of his favorites. I didn’t realize he’d been paying attention to the words. Hastily I started singing Wagon Wheel instead. But the tears continued. This wasn’t T trying to get out of going to bed. He was terrified. “Mama, cuddle me really tightly! I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be alone. I’ll miss Daddy. Daddy is my best friend. Where is Daddy? I need Daddy?”
“Oh baby, Daddy is at work. He’ll be home later.”
“Call him. Call him and tell him to come home. I need him.”
“Baby, when he gets home he will come in and hug you. I promise you. Right now I am with you. What is going on? Why do you think you are going to die?”
“I am going to die! And I don’t want to! I don’t want to be alone! I want to be with Daddy and Mommy and Charlie! I don’t want to die!”
“Baby, baby, baby. You are not going to be alone. You are not. Do you know what I believe? I believe there is something inside us that makes us who we are. Our soul. And our soul never dies. If it loves other people it will always be with those other people. You and Daddy and Mommy and Charlie will always always be together. We love each other that much. And I don’t think you are going to die anytime soon. I think you will live to be a very old man.”
“Mama, I don’t want to die! I don’t want to decay!”
“People believe so many different things about what happens when you die. Some people believe that you are reincarnated. That means that you are born again after you die. Some people believe in heaven, which is a place you go forever with the people you love. Some people believe that nothing happens. You get to decide what you believe.”
“I want to be born after I die.”
He cried for a long time. I held him tight and tried to hide my own tears from him, tried to make him feel safe. I asked him why he was so worried about death, but he couldn’t explain it. Finally, finally he settled.
I, on the other hand, was badly shaken. What. The. Fuck? I felt sick to my stomach. His distress was so palpable, so overwhelming. How do you help a kid who is scared to die? Did I tell him the right things? Did I make it worse? I don’t want to lie to him. I can’t bring myself to tell him he won’t die. Death is the only thing I am sure of when it comes to his life. That and he will be loved by his family.
These are the moments that scare me the most when it comes to parenting. More than when he is sick or hurt. What is the right way to help your child navigate complex emotional problems faced by every member of humanity? As an agnostic how do I explain god? As someone just as frightened of death as he is how do I ease the burden that we all carry- that every one of us will die? How do I talk about an afterlife when my beliefs are shaky at best?
This child I love so fiercely, my boy who is already an overthinker, who is filled with fear, who is anxious, who is terrified of nighttime, how do I help him? It seems like it should be easy, he and I are so alike. So far I can feel his pain perfectly. His fear slips into my heart where it grabs the hand of my own terror. I didn’t think I had room for more anxiety inside me, but he has proven me wrong. I will always be able to absorb his. But what good does that do? I want to help him, not just understand him.
When Z came home I explained what happened. Z had tears in his eyes. T hadn’t brought up death to him, the whole thing seemed out of left field. Z did go up to T’s room and hug his sweaty little sleeping body. T slept through the night and well past his usual wake up time. Z and I both went in to wake him. C joined us and there was a family pileup in T’s single bed.
He didn’t bring up death this morning. At school I asked his teacher and he hasn’t been talking about it there. Who knows? Maybe he’ll only be scared at night time. That’s how it was for me when I was his age. Maybe it will pass for a while. Maybe long enough for me to take a philosophy class on death and dying so I’ll be better equipped to help him. I’m kidding. Kind of.
Photos by Ellie Leonardsmith
Let’s end this one on a happy note. Z’s sister, our sister-in-law, and their daughter visited this weekend. Ellie is an amazing photographer and she took some family shots. If you are reading this in an RSS feed you might actually want to pop over to the blog itself if you are interested in seeing the new header picture. This was our “serious face” one. I really almost chose it for the header….
The lovely Aunt Dr. Kelsey and Aunt Ellie along with Graylyn.
Cousins! So many blue eyes!
This man. He makes me so happy.
There will be more photos from the shoot on the next several posts. Ellie is amazing. If you are in the Twin Cities area and need a photographer check her out.