Yesterday, my alarm clock was the sob of a small boy.
At first, the sound was low and I could not decipher what it was- murmuring voiced during sleep? Maybe a cat meowing for her breakfast? I waited a minute until I recognized the sound before getting out of bed. I paused a brief second to determine which child’s room the noise was coming from. A sigh of frustration exhaled my lips. I knew where the cry had originated from. I understood what this was about.
“What’s wrong Liam?”
“I woke up and remembered that I’m seven. I don’t want to be seven. I want to stay six! Seven is closer to death!”
Liam is both profoundly aware and sensitive to the thought of death. A couple of weeks ago we had another conversation in the car, this one involving my brother who died in October.
“Uncle Chris is dead.”
“Yes, he is.”
“But Grandma Jo is still alive. That means a kid died before a parent.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“But that’s not right.”
Nope. It’s not right. But it happened, and Liam interpreted what that meant. He has great anxiety over death, particularly his own death. I try my best to comfort him but he is emphatic when he pronounces that he does not want to die EVER. I feel a space open in my chest whenever he says this.
I hate his fear not only because I don’t want to see him hurting. I despise it on a personal level because I feel like I am failing him.
I’ve sought advice from various people on this topic. Many have responded with words along the lines of “I tell my kids they are going to heaven. They’ll go on to a new life.”
As an agnostic, I felt like I would be lying to say this. I have strong feelings about religion, in particular that belief should be a choice. If my kids gravitate toward a faith, I would be completely supportive. But I want them to be free to make up their own minds on this personal and impactful decision.
I talked with my boys about different religions, explaining the similarities and differences, focusing in particular on the subject of afterlife. We read books. We performed different rituals. I explained what I thought happened, what people I knew believed. But I made it clear they could explore and find the idea that felt right to them. This made sense to my 41 year old mind. Perhaps it was too much for a child.
Before having kids, we all come to terms with the fact that we are not going to be perfect parents. But in our minds, we believe we are going to do alright. We aren’t going to mess up too badly. What if I’m screwing up on one of the really big things? What if I’m failing my child as a mother?
One friend said kids need to feel safe. They don’t care about truth or freedom. They just want to feel like everything is going to be alright. There is a lot of truth to that statement. I wish I had thought more about this before our initial discussions. After the fact, I tried to encourage a belief in heaven, or an afterlife. I wanted Liam to feel secure. But at this point, Liam is focused on the dying part. A few days ago he told me “I have a really good life. I don’t want it to end.”
When he woke up crying on his birthday, my only thought was I have got to turn this around. That’s the thing about being the parent- when the tough moments happen, you don’t have the option of giving up. You can’t quit the job. You can’t call in sick. You have to make it right- or at least as right as it can be.
We talked about how much fun six had been. I told him “Seven is usually associated with being lucky. If six was a fun year, maybe seven is going to be a lucky year.”
We went to his favorite play place. To his surprise, some friends showed up to play- a first bit of luck! (Or a plan on mom’s part). His friends tried their best to make him feel special- pizza, balloons, games. He came home and I made his favorite thing to eat- warm bread with pesto. I baked a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting. He got both of the Star Wars Lego sets he wanted, and a Jedi costume he’s been longing for. We made plans for a camping trip this weekend. He spent the entire day surrounded by people who love him.
Over dinner, I reminded him of his great grandmother who is 94. His granny told him about a story she read in the newspaper profiling a couple who was celebrating their 85th wedding anniversary. We assured him he had a long long life ahead of him.
This morning, as he played with his new Legos, I asked him if he was getting used to being seven.
“Sort of. It’s getting better.”
That’s all I could ask for. Figuring out what it means to be a parent is an ongoing process. We are learning together. I can’t undo every bit of damage. I can’t make everything perfect. But I take the information and try to do better. My hope is that is enough.