A few weeks ago one of our neighbors passed away. He had been on hospice care for several months, so it wasn’t unexpected, and it took a day or two for the news to make it’s way down our block. Later that week I was on the way out the door to take LP to preschool. I hadn’t taken a shower yet and I had a ton of dishes waiting for me once I returned. As I was getting LP in the car a neighbor came over to ask if Bill had passed away. I confirmed that he had, and we talked about it for a minute before LP and I drove away.
As we drove down the street LP was uncharacteristically quiet. Then, while I was at a stoplight, he asked, “Mommy, where do people go when they die?” Now, there are several big conversations I expect to have with my kids. In my head, I always figured these conversations would happen when I could look my kids in the eye and talk about it seriously, not when I was trying to make a left turn in a busy intersection as we ran late to school. By now I should be used to these curveballs, but it still took me by surprise.
Still, I did the best I could in the moment. I told to LP that many people believe different things about where people go when they die. I explained that I believe we have two parts to ourselves: our bodies and our souls (which I later amended to be our thoughts, feelings and memories after he asked what a “soul” was). I also explained that I think our souls somehow live on after we die, even though our bodies don’t. He tolerated my long-winded explanation, which was punctuated by that tricky left turn. When I finished he was quiet for a few moments. Then he quietly said, “Mommy, I don’t want to die. I don’t want IP or you or Daddy to die either.” My heart broke inside as I wondered what I had done wrong, how I had scared him, what I had done to scar him so early. Part of me was very, very tempted to just tell him that people go to heaven and be done with that. But that would have been pretty disingenuous for an agnostic who had never set foot inside a church outside of weddings and funerals. I told him he was young and healthy, and none of us were in danger of dying for a very long time. While I don’t think he wasn’t totally settled by this response, by the time we got to school happily skipped into the room ready for the day. But I stayed twisted up the whole drive home.
Why do I share this definitely daunting experience? Because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had it. If there is one thing my kids have taught me, it is that they don’t do anything on a schedule, and they don’t keep the hard questions or the tough emotions contained until a convenient time. When I talked about it with the G-man I fretted and fretted about whether I had handled it “right” and kicked myself for all the things I should have said differently. He reminded me (in his wise way) that there is no “right.” There is just “best we can” and, on our best days “good enough.” As we talked about it, I was reminded that our primary goal is honesty with our kids and our primary concern is helping them deal with the emotions that arise from these difficult conversations. Death, and the finality it brings, is scary. I tend to deal with death by ignoring it or laughing at it, and I don’t think I’m alone. As much as I don’t want my kids to fear death, or frankly, fear anything, the reality is that they will. They will have to deal with that fear, and they will have to learn to understand death. I can’t protect them, but I can answer their questions honestly and thoughtfully, and make myself available to help them through the difficult emotions and questions that come from understanding the more difficult parts of life. And I just hope that is good enough.