Driving along in the car, and suddenly his voice pipes up from the back seat. ‘I don’t want to die.’
I don’t know how to respond to that. I say, ‘Well, most people don’t. But you are very young and healthy, so you are okay.’
Growing up, my grandmother talked about death a lot – specifically, her own death. She was/is a tremendous force in my life, so her constant death talk worried me a lot. She was famous for saying, ‘When I die, I don’t want anybody crying. Or I will sit right up in my coffin and punch them in the nose!’ As it turns out, she was cremated so no one was punched….though after her ashes were buried with all the sentimental things thrown in, the graveyard guy said we have to take her out and put some special sticker on the urn. I shit you not. So out came her ashes, while we all had a laugh. Who knows. Maybe she was trying to give us a solid whack from beyond.
I remember being little and compulsively praying over and over again. ‘Dear God, Please let Mom, Dad, me, and Erica live a long, long time.’ Literally over and over. I think it’s safe to say I suffered from death anxiety, which was exacerbated by my grandmother making me write lists of who would get what jewellery/possessions when she died. Incidentally, she lived till she was 89 and I was in my mid-twenties, so it was a long time to deal with her comments about her death.
When she did die, I went to a very black place. I couldn’t move. I had extended leave from work, felt I was having a breakdown, and shortly thereafter entered the counselling required by my counselling/psychotherapy course. I’d been putting off trying to contact a counsellor, and the bereavement gave me a very real reason to move forward with it.
She died what feels like an impossibly long time ago, and I’m now at a place where I can tell the kids about Grandma Annie and feel nostalgia, love, bittersweetness rather than just feeling like I would crumble if I thought about her.
Death was a big topic when I trained to become a counsellor, and I became quite interested in a specialist area known as existential psychotherapy. It is what it sounds like. I read a lot of Yalom (read him now, folks!), did a lot of thinking, processed through a lot of writing.
Then recently, I had a spate of people my age getting ill, and some even dying. One died very unexpectedly, and I was in shock for about a week. This sort of kicked off my death anxiety again (and having children seems to amplify it), even as I try to allow myself to feel what I feel, and still be okay. And I am okay, but I’ve got one little boy who is very worried.
When my mother in law casually mentioned her flowers dying last autumn, things kicked off. He talked incessantly about not wanting them to die. About wanting the exact same flowers to come back next spring. S soon joined in the questions about death – you see, my fabulous sister recently moved to the UK and the kids have been lucky enough to see quite a bit of her. She’s got a dog who was the picture of health whilst in America, but is apparently allergic to the UK and was quite unwell.
We happened to be at the library one day, and they wanted me to read a book with a picture of a dog similar to my sister’s on the cover. Of course it was one of those books – a death book. Sweet god, did that kick off the obsessing. We had a very intense few weeks, and then it cooled off.
I am very conscious that I come from a legacy of basically very healthy people who have an unhealthy obsession around death and serious illness. I don’t want to pass that on.
Many friends reassured me that age four is often when death becomes a topic of fascination. And since it seemed to move on, I let their words comfort me. And, indeed, S has become very pragmatic about the whole thing and often provides reassurance to M when he is, as he sometimes says, ‘nervous.’
He asks a lot about my sister’s dog. I don’t want her to die. Will Erica get a new dog? Will she be sad? I will miss Kiwi.
I know these are all normal questions and processing. He’s working out what he believes, and since I can’t hand him platitudes and comfort in terms of a traditional heaven I do not believe in, it means that he is exposed to more possible uncertainties and ways to think about things than other children may be. I think this is a good thing. I value critical thinking, questioning, exploring the hows and whys of things.
I hope these death worries are something he can process, and not something that he carries forward in life (in an unhealthy way, anyway, since it is natural to think about death and life). I won’t say I was overly affected by my own concerns, beyond the manic praying as a child. My anxiety was triggered by situations that would make anyone think about death, life, about the purpose of things. I am also a bit of what some might term a deep thinker, so that meant I focused more on this stuff. Only time will tell how M and S grow up to think about death, but I know it is causing me a lot of painful growth to try to have honest discussions.
Only this morning we found the most awesome leaf – all the green had rotted away, and only the veins were left. M was concerned about this. He wanted to take the leaf into the house to protect it, to make sure it didn’t blow away. He was upset about the leaf dying. Yet again, I took a deep breath and said, ‘But this is how things work. If the leaves didn’t do this, the whole world would be covered up in loads of leaves and there wouldn’t be room for anything else. The old leaves are going back into the earth to feed new trees.’
New trees upset him. He wanted the same trees.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But look at these leaves, they are doing it, too. They make the earth richer and stronger and better able to feed the trees that are here.’
I paused. He nodded, hopped off my lap, and was off running and playing again.
I looked down at this unbelievably gorgeous leaf – it looked so fragile, but the veins were still sturdy. Once again, I was able to hear my own words about the way this life works, and once again, I tried to allow myself to become richer and stronger, too.
Even though sometimes that is a hard thing to do.