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A few nights ago, I lay down with Lainey and rubbed her back as she fell asleep. With our bodies sidled up against each other and her head nestled into my neck, we talked about the things we talk about at night—school, upcoming events, funny things that happened during the course of our day. Conversation slowly fizzled as she gave in to her exhaustion, and I was just about ready to slip out of bed and join Brett in the living room, convinced from Lainey’s silence and steady sighs that she was asleep. And then, in the dark, her little voice spoke up.
“Mommy, Tyler* said today that when you grow up, you die. That’s not true, right?” Her voice broke with that last question which was really more of a plea than a question—please say no; we don’t die, right?
Without much time to strategize my response, I replied as most parents answer these questions—off the cuff, from the heart, and as best as we know how. I brought my face close to hers so she could see my reassuring smile in the dark, and I swept her hair from her forehead as I kissed her.
“Baby, everybody dies at some point in life. Most people live for a long time, just like my grandpas and grandmas. Remember I told you how my grandma and both of my grandpas died after they lived a wonderful life and had babies and then had grandbabies and watched them all grow up?”
Lainey immediately started to cry. “No, Mommy,” she argued, “No, they don’t die.”
Oh, this wasn’t going to be easy. I realized at that moment that death was a new concept to her, despite the fact that we’ve flushed a number of fish—God rest ‘em—down the toilet and have casually discussed the cycle of life through stories of grandparents and the occasional children’s book with an orphan character. But this time, it was making a little bit of sense in her growing five-year-old brain, and her comprehension of this topic brought new fears.
I could tell she was distraught. Her voice wavered as she continued: “And Gabby* said that you can die even if you don’t grow up. She said you can die if you get really sick. That’s not true, right?”
Oh, sweet mother of I-don’t-know-how-to-answer-this. And so again, I took her little question, hugged it tight and did my very best to gather up a meaningful, honest yet child-appropriate response.
Serious questions deserve serious responses, but at that moment, I knew my girl needed security—some ventilation through the heavy fear blanket that was quickly smothering my little kindergartener. So I laughed—a soft, gentle laugh.
“Have you ever been sick, Lainey?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“And did you die?” I asked.
“No,” she replied.
“Lainey, Gabby is right in that sometimes that happens. But it’s not something I want you to be afraid of. People get sick all the time, but we have so many things that help us get better—doctors and medicine and hospitals and good food and rest.”
“Mommy, you forgot to do oils today,” Lainey interrupted. “Will you go get them?”
I knew what that question meant. We use essential oils to help us “not get sick,” and my poor girl had now associated that benefit with “not dying.”
I slipped out of the bedroom to get the oils, giving her a little space and thankful for the opportunity to give Brett a quick rundown of our conversation. His response was a little different. Because Brett was terrified of death growing up. He doesn’t know why, but he remembers how scared he was and even his mom reminds me that it was a very difficult concept for him as a child.
“Please don’t tell her too much,” Brett pleaded. “I don’t want her to be scared. You have no idea how much the fear of death plagued me as a child. She’s five, Kelle. She’s too young to be thinking about this. Change the subject, please. Tell her everything is going to be okay.”
His last statement sharply emphasized a desire most of us share as parents: tell them everything is going to be okay. As elusive as that promise is, that’s what we’d love for our kids, right? A fearless childhood and the assurance that everything is going to be okay.
I so understand Brett’s desire—I mean, it’s my desire too—and I love how much he cares about the little minds of our kids. The fact is though, we have no guarantee in life that everything is going to be okay, and more than assuring my child that life is going to be dandy, I want to embrace every drop of good fortune we have while equipping my children with the tools to handle their fears and hardships.
Brett and I talked for another minute, uniting our approaches before I returned to Lainey and concluded our important conversation. I thought about a few things before I continued:
A) My goal is not to take away her fear of death. Death is scary. I think we all are, in some way, afraid of that great unknown. We don’t want to die when our kids are still young, and we certainly don’t want anyone we love to die either. It is natural and completely understandable that a five-year-old would be intimidated by this new concept. I want to acknowledge her fear.
B) What does my child think death means? While I didn’t necessarily have to address the depth of death on this particular evening, I realized that we would need to talk more about what death means in the coming months. This definition means different things to different families—to many, incorporating faith and afterlife. Faith is important to me and my family, and yet because of my past religious history, it is also critical for me to live faith and breathe it to my children in a way that embraces different ways of thinking; a way that encompasses questions and uncertainties, and never a definitive “this is the way it is” or “here’s a crutch for your fear.” Faith does bring a lot of comfort to the concept of death for me, though. And while I don’t know all the answers—and I won’t pretend I do to Lainey—I will share my ideas and dreams with my children and the fact that I believe that death is not an end.
C) Brett is right about Lainey being only five. I don’t believe in telling your children things that aren’t true just to alleviate their fears. However, I think there’s a fine line between being honest with your children and talking to them like adults. They’re not adults. Psychologically, there are clearly defined reasons why we don’t present adult concepts at adult levels to a five year old. Every child is different as well. We embrace our children’s personalities when we talk about big things, and knowing Lainey and how her little brain works will guide us as we approach more of these challenging topics as she grows up.
D) I know families that have had to present the hard truth of death to their children because they experienced it first-hand—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They too wanted to protect their children from knowing the depth of death’s meaning, but they didn’t have a choice. In some way, I want to honor their story and heartbreaking circumstances in the truth I present to my children. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I think about this fact as I begin to knit together lessons for my family in my head.
I returned to bed, massaged sweet-smelling oil into my girl’s feet, and cuddled up next to her, relieved to see she was smiling, relaxed and distracted.
“How many more days until Halloween?” she asked.
I smiled and hugged her. “Eight more days. Are you excited?”
“Yes,” she answered, smiling. “I want to go to sleep now.”
And so the two of us tangled our arms together and repositioned into comfier hollows in our pillows, our discussion a thing of the past for tonight and yet a door to the future. There will be more talks of fear and death. And while I hope that the searing truth of this concept keeps its distance for a long while in our family and with those we love, I know that years of time will eventually deepen my children’s understanding of the cycle of life. To prepare them, I will do what I do every day. I will love my kids.
I will teach them to be grateful for the wonderful things around them. I will encourage them to communicate their fears and questions with us, and I will be responsible with how I reply. I will live by example—making choices to be happy, to be compassionate to those around us, to educate myself and my family about the people of the world and their stories, and to embrace the sadness and unfortunate events in life with honesty and strength to overcome. Today we have so much to be grateful for, and there is comfort in recognizing that fact.
Fear isn’t a pleasant emotion, but it exists and it can certainly motivate us. How do you embrace your children’s fears? Do you discuss death and illness and tragedy in other places of the world with your children and if so, how to do you present that at an appropriate level? Hallmark and I would love to hear your response. Please be considerate of other families’ ways of addressing these topics. Enlightenment comes with an open mind.
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*Having entered the age of school and more complex social settings and topics, please note I’ve changed the names of Lainey’s classmates. This gets a bit more challenging as our kids grow up, and we embrace the challenges and changes that might come with blogging about our life.