“Mommy, I don’t want to die.”
The little voice wafts from his bed and stops me dead in my tracks. I turn back around and see my son sitting bolt upright in bed staring at me in the semi-darkness. I walk back over to him, my mind running furiously. What the heck am I going to say to him?
I quickly reason things out. No one in our family has died in his lifetime. We have no pets that have recently passed away, same with friends or neighbors. His favorite thing to watch on TV is geography shows, so I know he hasn’t seen anything there. So where is this coming from?
“What do you mean buddy?” I ask, sitting down on the edge of his bed.
“I don’t want to die,” he repeats.
“Why do you think that will happen?”
“It’s just something my brain told me.”
At this point, I’m not even sure he understands what dying is. It isn’t something we have discussed, it isn’t something we have witnessed together. I don’t know what to do. My mind flashes back to myself at 8 and 9, when I started to worry about my mortality. Young, just like him, but not this young.
“Have you learned anything at school about dying? Or any friends said anything? Or anything you watched on TV?” I try scraping together some semblance of a reason for this question.
“No. It’s just something I thought.”
His eyes are droopy, and I can tell he is fighting sleep. I try to placate him with an answer.
“You don’t have to worry about dying for a very long time. You are young.” I hold my breath, hoping this works. He’s so young to be asking this question. I don’t want to make more of this than is needed — especially if he has just heard the word somewhere and is curious.
“Ok, Mommy,” he says and snuggles back into bed.
I breathe a sigh of relief, say goodnight, and leave.
But then the same question comes the next night, and the next, and the next, for a week.
Each night I ask him the same questions and get the same answers. I try to reassure him that he is very young and he doesn’t have to worry about dying now. On the seventh day, I try something new.
“We have to live our best life, buddy,” I flinch as I say it. I sound like an infomercial even to myself. “We have to live each day to the fullest and make sure we make the best of it.”
He stares at me blankly. Duh, of course, he does. He’s five. Every day is his best life. I stumble on for a few more minutes and he seems happy. I cringe at my explanations but it has seemed to work. He doesn’t ask about death again for a while.
A few months later.
We are driving in the truck somewhere and out of nowhere he says, “I know what you look like when you die. You just lie there and don’t move.”
My heart sinks, “Why do you think this?”
“It’s what happened in The Lion King when we watched it at dance camp.”
In my head, I’m screaming, but outwardly I’m calm.
“Yes buddy, that is what happens.” My husband can hear me stammering from the front seat and he tactfully changes the topic. The Lion King is soon forgotten and with it, we hope, his fear of death. But of course that isn’t how it works.
When the truth finally comes out.
Towards the end of summer, I’m sitting with my son in a moment of quiet and he leans in and says,
“Mommy, people don’t always die when they are old, they can die when they are sick too.”
I turn to look at him.
“I know because a girl in my class last year, her dad got sick and died. She was very sad at school. She was crying to me.”
And there it was. The reason for his worry. The reason, at 5 years old he was so preoccupied with death. I knew I needed to buckle up and give him proper answers, regardless of how uncomfortable it made me. From there the floodgates opened.
“Why do people have to die?”
“Will I die when I get sick?”
“Will you and Daddy die before me? I don’t want you to die!”
“What happens when you die?”
“Where do you go when you die?”
I looked into his sweet face and tried to give him the best answers I could. I knew I couldn’t give him answers to most of his questions. What happens in death is terrifying, unknowable, one of life’s big mysteries. But I didn’t try to placate him or push aside his fears. I told him that death is scary. That no one knows what happens when you die. That mommy and daddy are scared of death sometimes as well.
I let him know I didn’t have all the answers, that I was human and had the same fears as him. But I also assured him that he could always ask me whatever questions he wanted and tell me whatever fears he had. We spoke for another ten minutes or so and after that day he seemed to be less concerned with death.
I came to terms with my mortality that day.
I had to face myself as an 8-year-old who had been so preoccupied with my mortality. I had to re-visit the questions that live at the back of my mind, the ones that emerge every so often in the night if I let my mind wander just the right way. The ones that I try desperately to stamp down. But I embraced all my fears and used them to try and give my son the best answers I could.
I think what emerged was a stronger bond with my son. He knew that his fears were acknowledged and that even if his parents didn’t have the answers, we would always talk them through with him. That he can share whatever feelings he has, whenever he has them.
Despite all the uncomfortableness I had in addressing these questions, how my heart ached that he was even asking them, it is in the hard moments that true bonds are made. And I think we both emerged stronger because of it.
Kim Fedyk is a writer and mom. She has published two fantasy novels and six children’s picture books as well as being a frequent contributor to her blog on Medium.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.