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On Gratefulness and Happiness and Fears of Mortality

(Part 1 written in September)

Parenting is hard.  Anyone ever hear this refrain before?  I’m here to say it’s true.  Absolutely true.

See, I make a deliberate effort to look for the good, to find things to be grateful for, to try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  Not because I’m some sort of Pollyanna-type.  Hardly.  It’s purely selfish–I’m happier on all levels when I’m not spending time dwelling on anger, fostering resentment/sadness, or worrying about whether or not someone’s sincere.  This works for me as a life-hack, and it’s brought me back from some pretty dark places.

And if I could wish one thing for Hen, it’s not that he’ll grow up to be a genius or uber-wealthy or anything, really–except for happy.  The ability to be happy is a crucially important one, and one that goes hand in hand with having a compassionate heart, I think.  You can’t be happy if you’re angry all the time; and it’s hard to be angry at someone if you’re feeling compassion toward them (or at least trying to give the jerk who just cut you off on the highway the benefit of the doubt.  “Maybe he’s rushing to the hospital to visit his sick grandma,” I grit as I slam on the brakes.)  It helps, and it makes me remember my own dark days, and my promise to myself to treat others as gently as I am capable of, in case they are enduring their own hell on any given day.

So I do think compassion is good–is healthy, and even promotes personal happiness.  So yay.

Except Hen seems to be taking the compassion thing to extremes.

Hen has been, for a long time, very concerned with ‘meanness’.  Why mean people are mean, what they’re thinking when they’re being mean, etc.  He’s always had an overdeveloped sense of empathy which–great!  He’s not a sociopath, hurrah!  But that sense is getting a workout these days.  He sat bolt upright the other day while he was trying to fall asleep, in order to tell me that he thinks that Cruella from 101 Dalmatians isn’t really mean, but that maybe she’s just wearing a Halloween costume that made her look mean.

He was dead serious, and wanted confirmation that his ‘way out’ for her to be actually nice at heart was valid.  So yeah.  I gave it to him.  “Very likely,” I said.  Realize he’s never actually seen the movie–two months ago, he deemed it too scary to watch once Cruella entered and we turned it off.  He’s never been exposed to anything other than preschooler-tv — and I screen that for violence and mean-kid-ness.  And don’t get me wrong–I’m happy he’s so empathetic that scary stuff IS scary to him.  Better that than the opposite, yes?

But he’s concerned about the meanness of sharks these days, and so I do a lot of ‘that’s just what sharks do, they’re not really mean, just predators’  (scary-ass, keep-me-out-of-the-water predators, I don’t say, which figure way too prominently in my land-locked nightmares!)

Which leads us to death.

Yeah. Really.

I knew conversations about death would be inevitable with kids–I remember being pretty wigged out by the concept when I was–I don’t know, in early elementary school?  But now he’s made the connection between chickens that go ‘cluck’ and chicken meat that he loves to eat.  Between mice that eat cookies in books and the ones Mattie-Cattie crunches up on the kitchen floor before we wake up sometimes.

(I flubbed his first experience with death–well, I’m still not sure how I should have handled it.  His friend’s dog died back in January.  A dog we liked and used to go on walks with.  When he asked why we hadn’t seen her in a long time, I mentioned it–I thought casually.  But he latched onto the information that ‘N’s dog is dead, and N & her mommy are sad because they miss her.’ and he asks for follow up about how long the dog will be dead for, and how old she must have been.  He reminds me of this chain of events every week or so.  It looks ok on paper, but I feel like I should have been able to slip that information in a little more subtly so that it wouldn’t be so firmly entrenched in his psyche? I don’t know.)

Then this last week,  Someone–probably at playgroup–introduced him to the concept of ‘soldiers’, and he needed to know today if soldiers are mean. If they hurt people.  If they kill people.

Oooof.  Talk about your out-of-the-blue question.  Realize, we don’t watch TV news.  Or anything ‘adult’ where Hen can see it.  Not ever.  My husband owns a shit-ton of war strategy games with soldiers on the cover, but they’re stored up high, and haven’t really been noticed yet, I think.  I have been on tenterhooks for the last couple of weeks, desperately hoping for a non-military intervention in Syria.  Soldiers have been on my mind a lot lately, to tell you the truth.  Soldiers and politics and the intersection between them.  But it’s nothing we would dream of discussing around Hen.

And then on the way to OT, Hen wanted to know if soldiers are mean.  (sometimes) If they ever kill people.  (yes) If the mean soldiers get killed.  (sometimes, but not always) If good soldiers ever get killed.(sometimes)  If they’re killed, do I think that he, Henry, could make them all better.(No, but oh, how I wish you could. I definitely wish you could, child of my heart)  And possibly explain to the mean ones how to be nice. (Oh how I wish you could make everyone be nice and alive.  And ok again.)

And trying to answer this child honestly, but not graphically?  Deliberately, but not heartlessly?  Truthfully, but not brutally?

This is really really hard.  I feel very strongly about not lying to kids–not about things they are interested in learning the truth about, anyway.  Santa Claus will continue coming to town until Hen gets serious about needing to know ‘the awful truth’.  But this.  He’s interested, he’s asking thoughtful (well, for a three-year-old) questions, and is he already using my answers to shape the person he’s going to become.

Yikes.  No pressure now.

I’m going to go buy a book.  A book about explaining death to kids.  Oi.


The above was written a couple of months ago, and I didn’t post it because I thought we’d dodged a bullet–so to speak!  He stopped talking about it, and I certainly wasn’t going to bring up the subject again!

Then tonight, at dinner.  He saw a cut on my hand–no big deal, a little raw place.  “Is your hand going to fall off, Mommy?”  Um, no.  Definitely not!

Then he had to crawl up in my lap.  “Will your hands ever fall off?”  No, absolutely not.

“Not even when you die?”  Um, no, even when I die, my hands will not fall off.  (And no, I am not ABOUT to go into the natural decay of dead mommy bodies with my 3-year-old.  Don’t even suggest it.)  (Tears standing in his eyes.)

“Mommy, I don’t want you to die.  Are you going to die?”  Well, everyone dies someday, but I’m not going to die for a long long time.  Your mommy’s mommy’s mommy is still alive, and that means I will likely live a very very very long time. (And then his tears started to fall.)

“But you’re going to die someday?  I don’t want you to die ever.  Are you going to die someday?”

How do you promise your child you won’t die for a long time?  You cross your fingers behind your back and pray to every shiny hope of a benevolent Universe that you won’t make a liar of yourself.  But to promise that I’ll never die?  I can’t tell him that, can I?  Not even at three.  That would be such a huge lie that it could really destroy his world if he decides to latch on to that promise.  So I didn’t promise that.  And now I’m second-guessing myself.  I mean, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, ‘Dead Mommy’ will be at least as traumatic as ‘Mommy lied’, right?  Except, ‘My dead Mommy was a liar’, is probably the worst of all those scenarios, right?

Ugh.  Any thoughts from wise parents who’ve been here before at what feels like way too young an age?

I did, actually, buy a beautiful book about ‘Lifetimes’, which is in line with how I feel about death–it’s natural, it happens to everyone, some lifetimes are long and some are not as long, etc. without any religious declarations.  But damn, I’m seriously considering breaking out an old safety position to try to steer these conversations toward heaven or reincarnation or something simple his mind can cling to instead of just this existential fear.

One of his sisters remembers being shaken–utterly shaken–by first getting a grasp on the notion of mortality when she was 3 or 4.  And she’s certainly the sister Hen is most like.  But what do I do to make this ok–or at least to get his mind away from it until he’s older and mature enough to actually deal with the big difficult thing?

Oh, my sweet boy.  It’s a hard, scary world, but I’ll confess that death is not something I spend much time worrying about anymore.  I’ve always tried to live life so that I will regret nothing, rather than as if I would live forever.  And I’ve never wanted to live forever.  Better to live well.  But this child makes me want to cling to life as long as Methuselah, simply so that he will not grieve, so that I will not have to leave him alone in the world without a Mommy.  Ever.

A friend who also had children ‘late’ in life posted a poem on FB about this very thing recently.  The last lines being something along the lines of: “For you, my child, I would live forever.”  And that poem has been haunting me.

For this sweet boy I would live forever and I would remake the world into a kinder place where any question he asked me would be easy (and possible) to answer.  And it breaks my heart that neither one is possible.  I think I just found my inspiration for taking better care of myself.  And I suspect we’re going to be doing a lot of volunteering-as-a-family when he gets a little older.


And on that note, have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Anyone out there reading who’s still in the IF trenches, you’re in my thoughts this week.  And everyone who’s living a life they wanted, I hope it’s a perfect day of turkey or veggie-alternative deliciousness, surrounded by those you love most.


5 comments to On Gratefulness and Happiness and Fears of Mortality

  • Sigh. This actually made my heart feel heavy. I remember I was in 1st grade I learned this and was terrified that my dad would die. Don’t know why I didn’t consider my mom, it was always my dad— and the fear never went away. Its’ an anxiety I’ve always lived with.

    I can’t imagine how I’m going to have the conversation. I never had it with my parents. I will have to do some reading on it, but how hard. :( Please do share how you handle it all and how he handles it.

    In another note, I loved loved loved your perspective on people and others and focusing on good. I really need to get back on track with doing that. It’s not easy sometimes, but I have to try. Thanks for the reminder.

  • I fear death. I used to laugh at people who were afraid of death, but then I got something to live for, and another reason, and another, and now I am afraid of death, both theirs and mine. How could I survive any of theirs death? I pray that I do not have to deal with the death of my husband for a very, very long time. And how will my death change them? How can I wish for my death to be first, when I know now what love is and how I am part of it, and how much it would hurt. So far, I have been successful diverting little people’s attention from that.

    Except that I had to explain that running away from mum on to a street were cars drive is very bad, because one could get very hurt and might even die. ‘What is to die, mummy?’ Oh, drat. The biggest owie one can get. So big that those who love him or her are hurt as well. ‘Baddest owie?’ ‘Precisely. Don’t run away from mummy. Don’t cross any street without mummy just yet.

  • babyinterrupted

    We’re about in the same place. I, too, believe strongly in being as honest as is appropriate: using the word, ‘death,’ for example, and not, ‘passed away,’ or whatever, because I think kids get more scared when they have to fill in the blanks. We’ve talked about death a few times and I’m also so torn when she asks if I will die, or Daddy. One thing that’s helped a bit is my asking her, “why are you asking this, honey? How do you feel?” and then talking about feeling afraid. I feel like I can genuinely reassure her that mommy and daddy will be around for a long time, just like Grandma and Grandpa. (I don’t think ‘we could all get hit by a bus tomorrow’ is super helpful at this age.) Good luck! You’re so right: it is hard, hard, hard. And lovely. And then more hard. :)

  • Cat

    My kids are four years old and they’ve known about death since they were about two. They don’t REALLY know, of course, but it came up when they started understanding family roles and asked about my parents. I told them that my dad died before they were born and that means that his body stopped working and we don’t get to see him anymore. I also had to touch on it when M started playing with electrical cords. I told her she could get an owie so big that Mommy, Daddy, and the doctor couldn’t fix it, that we wouldn’t get to see her anymore, she wouldn’t be with us anymore, and that we’d miss her. I didn’t bring up heaven at that point because I didn’t know how to do it without making it sound like a place she might like to visit.

    My kids are very matter of fact about it now. Their cousins’ other grandfather has passed away, a friend’s grandmother, and a couple dear pets. They bring up my dad at least once a week and always say the same thing: he died before we were born, we don’t get to see him anymore, and we miss him.

    They know that people die when their bodies get too old and don’t work anymore. They “know” it will happen to all of us, but haven’t fixated on the future death of anyone yet. I’ll do the same as you, though, and not make promises I can’t keep. That’s my rule for parenting and life in general, so it makes sense to keep following it. My son tested me on that not long ago when we drove by a VFW post with a fighter jet and two tanks on display out front. I told the kids what the tanks were and how they could go on all kinds of terrain. DS said, “But they can’t go through buildings, right, Mama?” “No, they can go through buildings.” “But not if there are people in them.” “Yes, they could go through buildings even if there are people in them.” He got furious with me and said I was wrong and no one would do that. Once we were home, I took his hands and told him that I always tell him the truth and that tanks could go through buildings with people in them, but that we hoped they didn’t ever have to and that they’d only do that in a war and that war is when two countries are in a great big fight. Their aunt actually was a soldier in Iraq, though in Civil Affairs (the helpers), but they don’t know what a soldier is yet, just that she was one and drove a hummer.

    Another way I approach this is by not purposely shielding them from the little mentions of death like in nursery rhymes and songs. My MIL changes the words to “I know an old woman who swallowed a fly, perhaps she’ll cry” but I just say “die”. It’s life. It will happen to all of us. I think hearing about it in little bites in everyday life will get them used to the idea so the first time someone they love dies isn’t the first time they’ve ever heard of it happening.

  • Melissia

    As much as you may want to shield your sweet Hen from the idea of death, please try not to. My parents did this, we were always too young to go to family funerals and loved ones who had died were never discussed in our family.
    As an adult, this created a gap of shared experiences with our other family members and a huge lack of knowledge about how to behave at funerals and memorial services. In the South especially or for certain religions, there are ways that family members or visitors are expected to behave, areas where each is to sit.
    When one is raised to believe that death and it’s rituals are not a normal part of life, that is where it can be confusing. I know that you want to protect him. Perhaps when he asks those questions about you and your husband, you should remind him about all the people who love him, his sisters, and his new baby aunt that will always love him and be his family. It may help him feel more secure.