I have a precious 10-year-old daughter. She is the epitome of a bright ray of sunshine; there are moments where her warmth snuggles you into just the right mood… AND moments where you are driving directly into her blinding light on the highway in unpredictable traffic. She is wonderful and typical and special in every way a 10-year-old girl can be.
And death is on her mind.
Our family has had some pretty intense struggles over the last two years; watching my best friend struggle and succumb to brain cancer, my parents involved in a near-fatal accident that resulted in them temporarily living with us to recover and learn to walk again, the death of a dog in the same accident, A cousin with a mysterious brain injury that will likely end his life, and now we have COVID raising its hand to sit at this table and bombard my 10-year-old with the idea of death.
It started with little mentions of the “soul” and “when you die” and “will you still be alive when….”. Something deep in my brain started humming into motion — that conversation was looming, headlights coming up the road of life lessons at full speed.
How DO you explain death to a 10-year-old? How do you allow them to have their unique series of thoughts without interjecting your belief into what happens, yet guide them into the subject with a security that tells them that they can confidently search this complex process with you by their side?
I have a really quizzical mind, and existential questions abound in my head at many points on any given day. It’s almost exciting that she’s asking these questions, but my fear is that my leniency of my own belief will fail her. At 10, kids want solid answers. They want you to tell them it’s going to be alright, and they want you to mean it. And I DO tell her that in my own way that still gives credence to our lack of control in this domain. But still, I WANT to say “you have nothing to worry about. Everything is going to be okay. Nothing bad will happen. ”
But saying those things is not me. She deserves the truth, no matter how difficult the lesson may be.
This conversation has reared its head enough that it’s on my mind for good portions of the day. What to say, how to react, how far do you take this conversation before it’s too deep for her to follow? Metaphors? Analogies? Comparison? Every tool in my toolbox is my approach right now. My husband will add his thought process in there somewhere to give her some more illumination on his thoughts regarding this very abstract question of “after”.
My new thought is to talk about it during the daylight hours when she is immersed in the living of life, to remind her of where she is presently — living life, enjoying the moment, smiling, and doing the things 10-year-old girls do. Not to bring her down from that happy place, but to remind her to acknowledge her joy so that she can remember that it exists when she is troubled by death.
Its a journey so far, and honestly, I think we might be doing pretty good. She’s facing small fears, she’s stepping up to help with our daily life, she is owning her mistakes, and she’s communicating efficiently. That behavior tells me that she is building confidence, and confidence comes from facing fear and discomfort.
So I’m sticking to the program for now. When I see her look at me in the dimly lit glow of the nightlight with “that” look on her face, I remind myself to be patient with this one because it’s really important — like, the-dishes-can-wait-tonight kind of important. I remind her that we have no control of some things in life and that’s where so much of the fear comes from; that “unknowing” lacks control. I try to tell her how I behave when I feel afraid or out of control: “Think of things that make your heart smile. Have a fantasy about the things that bring you happiness. ”. I try to share with her little seeds of wisdom I find throughout the day that are poignant and worthy — even if the concept is beyond her…. Planting a seed is how you grow your garden. The latest nugget of wisdom I shared with her is this quote I saw on someone’s Facebook wall the other day:
“Fear does not stop death, it stops life. And worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles, it takes away today’s peace”
But the thing I try to help her remember is her JOY and how it makes the rest of us feel…and to do that I ask her to share it with me, I try to show her how to conquer that fearful moment by anticipating an upcoming moment of minimal effort yet maximum impact: “little lady, I can’t wait to see your face in the morning. Please come in and snuggle me for a moment before we start the day tomorrow, because you’re like a bright ray of sunshine and your warmth snuggles me into just the right mood.”
Previously published on Medium.com.
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