How do you respond to children's questions about death? I can't think of a better way than this.
Life Parenting

Child, We Will Live Forever (and It Will Never Be Too Much)

How do you respond to children's questions about death? I can't think of a better way than this.

“Are you going to love me, even when you die?” my daughter asks as we’re making lunch.

“Forever and ever,” I reply, quickly, as I have before, to the same question. She knows the answer already, and she’s only five. These chats have become a recurring thing.

“And even when I die?” Her concept of love after death is always advancing. To keep loving someone is all we want, regardless of dimension.

“Even when you die, at an old, old age.” Every now and then I throw in a “but I’ll die first.” And with that, her curiosity, for now, moves on.

When you die, you live forever in people’s hearts and memories. My children know this idea well. In their own way, they know how to think about death, especially since their first funeral last summer, for a great-grandparent, and an open casket one at that. Then the cat died, and the kids found her before I did, in a strange death pose, before I could avert young stares. The kids were curious, a little sad, and then very blunt about her dying, like an event we went to. “Our cat died,” they told strangers and friends, without tears or sadness in their voices.

It’s a thing, you know, this dying.

Depression, however, I don’t want them to know well. Suicidal thoughts, please be strangers. Anxiety, PTSD, the others: please never touch their beautiful brains. May they be sad but not chronically sad; may they know grief but not debilitating grief; may they know disease that has a cure and pain that has an end.

But I know better – the scorpions and twisted neurons in one’s mind can take over the least of daily thoughts for some. And these things might infect or affect them. Life is full of suffering and they will have to be strong and know how to deal with dark times; luckily for them they have parents who are attuned to their personalities and predilections. And we’ve been prepared in our own way too.

Life is an amazing journey filled with wonder. They – at ages five and seven – know that already, and I will always remind them of this. But my life has been touched by these illnesses, these real life monsters, and it’s something I want them to never suffer from.

I’m a realist, however, and even though we live in a wide, modern world, shadows fall from the highest skyscrapers and the lowest playgrounds and affect the wood chips all around us.

The other night my son was intently watching the news and exclaimed that he was glad we live here where it’s safe and we don’t have to suffer like those people on TV. My wife and I were taken aback but at the same time not surprised. If my children feel safe on the couch with us, then hopefully they’ll carry that feeling into adulthood and know what to do when the bloody tint of the news and the rowdy echo of chaos reach into their precious lives.

The world’s on fire, and when it’s not on fire, it’s drowning. Our kids pick up on this. The best thing we can do is give them the world, make them aware of the injustice, and hope that they become loving characters who are more apt to save the world than to do it harm.

In the past fifteen years I’ve been to a good deal of funerals, and I have a habit of losing condolence cards I’ve bought which means that I usually get one on the quick while going to a wake or funeral. There’s something about that bowl of cards next to the casket, calling you to let the family know that their loved one should have existed longer, and none of us can do anything about it but cry and comfort and carry on. I just found one of these cards the other day, and I try to call up my memories of the deceased so that the person can live, for a little bit, inside my heart and memories.

I can never do any more than just that. Over time my wishing has become a calm, reserved power that somehow reassures me that when I die, I will live forever in the memories of someone else, just like the dead are doing now.

I’m going to live forever, dear child, as long as those memories live. And you will live forever too; may you die of old, old age, and may you be loved even when you die. May all the wonder and suffering of all the niches in your life hit you at the right time in just the right amount, and may it never, ever, ever be too much.


This essay first appeared on Nerdy Dad Shirt and The Good Men Project.