Tuesdays with mortality: How to explain death to fragile mind of a 10-year-old

features@islandpacket.comMay 18, 2014 

20070717 Scary books

The subject of death comes up a lot when you have kids. So be prepared to get slapped in the face with some unexpected existential discussions at bedtime.

CHRIS WARE — McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Welp, here we go with the death talks again.

When you have kids, death comes up a lot. If you have pets, for instance, death is a bracing, occasional reminder of the fragility of life -- except if you have goldfish, in which case death is something that happens every six days and can be mostly cured by a trip to the pet store.

Death also comes up a lot if you read about Greek mythology, which we do, and I wish we didn't, because sweet raisin Hades are those some morbid, boss-level nightmare stories. I mean, I know TV is bad for your frontal lobe and everything, but TV isn't even 100 years old, whereas we're going on several thousand years of myths about child-eating, parent-murdering, pretty nonstop godly sex-making and at least one discussion about the minotaur's origins that I'd rather not revisit, THANKS A LOT, GREEK PEOPLE. Jeez, I thought explaining that brother-sister kiss in "The Empire Strikes Back" was hard -- you try getting across to a fourth-grader that some petulant god made a woman fall in love with a bull just to be a jerk. And this comes from what's considered invaluable world literature! At least you know "Game of Thrones" is kind of crappy before you read it. (Oh, stop looking at me like that, it's a little crappy.)

But it also comes up -- death, that is, not "Game of Thrones" -- almost exclusively at bedtime, that serene period where kids' brains begin to wind down, except the parts that try to invent some method of staying up a few minutes later. Those parts kick into hyper-powered overdrive, like some zombie brain that can't be defeated. I've watched my son essentially nap through 5 p.m. swim practices, only to decide at 8:45 p.m. that it's time to ask about the Big Bang Theory.

Once, when he was younger, we spent three or four nights talking him down from his troubling belief that Cat Heaven and People Heaven were, in fact, separate places. I don't want to gloat, but I made probably the best argument for a Unified Theory of Cat and People Heavens that any of you have ever heard. Seriously, I should get an official commendation from the Pope, or at least PetSmart.

So a few nights ago, as I was reaching for the lightswitch, my 10-year-old announced that he'd like to spend the day before he dies looking at pictures from the course of his entire life.

As you might expect, when you're readying for the usual bedtime-delaying tactics involving glasses of water and additional blankets, that's a pretty serious punch to absorb. One minute you're reading Percy Jackson and mentally plotting your laundry strategy in the unlikely event bedtime ever ends; the next you're being plunged into existential coldness by an unseen force reminding you that despite your best efforts one day you'll die, as will your son, as will your other son, as will everyone you've ever known, and you have about two and a half seconds to come up with a response that'll calm your developing child's mind, allow him to fall asleep in the next two days and prevent yourself from shattering into tiny slivers at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

It's not easy. I stumbled my way through two or three minutes of assuring him that day wouldn't come for a very long time, and that everyone close to him was still close, and that it was a sweet thought but not one to dwell on tonight. And then I brought up lightsabers. And Percy Jackson's sword. And the weather. And how my allergies were making my eyes all red and teary.

We got through that one, but death came up the next night as well, though luckily it was only a question about where we went when we died, which was obviously a huge relief. (Coming off the Camera Roll of Your Life thing, questions about post-death soul location felt pretty much like single-digit multiplication.) I deployed my usual arsenal of hopefully-brilliant-yet-open-minded-yet-not-judgmental-yet-independence-encouraging responses, which is to say I kicked the can down the road until he takes a "philosophy" course in college or whatever. (I'm no theologian, man, and frankly also 9 p.m. is my wind-down "House of Cards" time, so maybe we could save the soul-transformation debates until daylight?)

When you're 10, of course, these questions are gone by morning, evaporated into the sunlight. When you're 10, worries of death both human and feline pretty quickly melt into concerns about Pop-Tarts and Lego towers. One of the best thing about being 10 is the temporary nature of everything, the way nothing stays real for too long, even the awful things. Because when you get a little older, they totally keep you awake at night.

Jeff Vrabel is crying over a photo reel of his cat's life as we speak. Follow him at twitter.com/JeffVrabel and read more at www.jeffvrabel.com.

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