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We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.
“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.
She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:
“I don’t want to die.”
Now let’s freeze this tableau for a moment and make a few things clear. The first is that I love this child so much I would throw myself under Pat Robertson for her. She’s one of just four people whose health and happiness are vital to my own. When she is sad, I want to make her happy. It’s one of the simplest equations in my life.
I say such obvious things because it is often assumed that nonreligious parents respond to their children’s fears of death by saying, in essence, Suck it up, worm food. When one early reviewer of Parenting Beyond Belief implied that that was the book’s approach, I tore him a new one. I am convinced that there are real comforts to be found in a naturalistic view of death, that our mortality lends a new preciousness to life, and that it is not just more truthful but more humane and more loving to introduce the concept of a life that truly ends than it is to proffer an immortality their inquiring minds will have to painfully discard later.
But all my smiling confidence threatens to dissolve under the tears of my children.
“I know, punkin,” I said, cradling her head as she convulsed with sobs. “Nobody wants to die. I sure don’t. But you know what? First you get to live for a hundred years. Think about that. You’ll be older than Great-Grandma Huey!”
It’s a cheap opening gambit. It worked the last time we had this conversation, when Laney was four.
Not this time.
“But it will come,” she said, hiffing. “Even if it’s a long way away, it will come, and I don’t want it to! I want to stay alive!”
I took a deep breath. “I know,” I said. “It’s such a strange thing to think about. Sometimes it scares me. But you know what? Whenever I’m scared of dying, I remember that being scared means I’m not understanding it right.”
She stopped hiffing and looked at me. “I don’t get it.”
“Well what do you think being dead is like?”
She thought for a minute. “It’s like you’re all still and it’s dark forever.”
A chill went down my spine. She had described my childhood image of death precisely. When I pictured myself dead, it was me-floating-in-darkness-forever. It’s the most awful thing I can imagine. Hell would be better than an eternal, mute, insensate limbo.
“That’s how I think of it sometimes too. And that frrrrreaks me out! But that’s not how it is.”
“But how do you know?” she asked pleadingly. “How do you know what it’s like?”
“Because I’ve already been there.”
“What! Haha! No you haven’t!”
“Yes I have, and so have you.”
“What? No I haven’t.”
“After I die, I will be nowhere. I won’t be floating in darkness. There will be no Dale McGowan, right?”
“And millions of worms will eat your body!!” chirped Erin, unhelpfully.
“Well they will.”
“Uh…yeah. But I won’t care because I won’t be there.”
I turned back to her sister. “So a hundred years from now, I won’t be anywhere, right?”
“I guess so.”
“Okay. Now where was I a hundred years ago? Before I was born?”
“Where were you? You weren’t anywhere.”
“And was I afraid?”
“No, becau…OMIGOSH, IT’S THE SAME!!”
It hit both girls at the same instant. They bolted upright with looks of astonishment.
“Yep, it’s exactly the same. There’s no difference at all between not existing before you were born and not existing after you die. None. So if you weren’t scared then, you shouldn’t be scared about going back to it. I still get scared sometimes because I forget that. But then I try to really understand it again and I feel much better.”
The crisis was over, but they clearly wanted to keep going.
“You know something else I like to think about?” I asked. “I think about the egg that came down into my mommy’s tummy right before me. And the one before that, and before that. All of those people never even got a chance to exist, and they never will. There are billions and trillions of people who never even got a chance to be here. But I made it! I get a chance to be alive and playing and laughing and dancing and burping and farting…”
(Brief intermission for laughter and sound effects.)
“I could have just not existed forever — but instead, I get to be alive for a hundred years! And you too! Woohoo! We made it!”
“Omigosh,” Laney said, staring into space. “I’m like…the luckiest thing ever.”
“Exactly. So sometimes when I start to complain because it doesn’t last forever, I picture all those people who never existed telling me, ‘Hey, wait a minute. At least you got a chance. Don’t be piggy.’”
More sound effects, more laughter.
Coming to grips with mortality is a lifelong process, one that ebbs and flows for me, as I know it will for them. Delaney was perfectly fine going to sleep that night, and fine the next morning, and the morning after that. It will catch up to her again, but every time it comes it will be more familiar and potentially less frightening. We’ll talk about the other consolations — that every bit of you came from the stars and will return to the stars, the peaceful symphony of endorphins that usually accompanies dying, and so on. If all goes well, her head start may help her come up with new consolations to share with the rest of us.
In his brilliant classic The Tangled Wing, Emory psychologist Melvin Konner notes that “from age three to five [children] consider [death] reversible, resembling a journey or sleep. After six they view it as a fact of life but a very remote one” (p. 369). Though rates of development vary, Konner places the first true grasp of the finality and universality of death around age ten—a realization that includes the first dawning deep awareness that it applies to them as well. So grappling with the concept early, before we are paralyzed by the fear of it, can go a long way toward fending off that fear in the long run.
Laney, for better and worse, is ahead of the curve. All I can do is keep reminding her, and myself, that knowing and understanding something helps tame our fears. It may not completely feed the bulldog — the fear is too deeply ingrained to ever go completely — but it’s a bigger, better Milk-Bone than anything else we have.