Sometimes the raw honesty and directness of childhood takes my breath away.
When I think about death, there is a brooding quality, a familiar one yet muted. Adults learn to push it to the back of the shelf. And there’s a bittersweetness; I think fondly about those I’ve lost and miss.
None of this is true for my 7-year-old, who is coming to the rude realization that death is real and that we will all, one day, die.
This does not seem to him like a good plan. He does not want it. His fear of death springs up suddenly, with yelps and shouts and panic. Our reassurances that death is likely a long long time away do not really help. He doesn’t want anyone in the family to die, not by poisoning, not by fire, not by being shot, and not in a war.
His horror at this knowledge usually erupts at bedtime, and while he’s briefly soothed by reassuring talk, the fear builds up and spills out again and again until he’s exhausted and drifts off to sleep.
With monsters, while his upset was hard to feel, at least I could tell myself that monsters, in the conventional sense, aren’t real. But I’m afraid he has the facts about right on death, and the feelings he’s having must be a version of what we all go through when we realize that our life is finite, and will have an end.
This follows a long arc of macho fantasy, where he’s the protector with nothing to fear. Firefighter, then police officer, and soldier, with a bit of superhero thrown in. As a small being these symbols of protection and strength must be so comforting.
But somehow this immersion has brought my son to the reality of why we have these helpers: the dangerous, those who would hurt us. Death.
Coincidentally this weekend we went with the cub scouts and spent the night on the USS Hornet, a gargantuan aircraft carrier. It’s very real, and unusual in that it’s truly dangerous place kids can go, made of hard steel, with steep ladder steps and trip-inducing doors. My son was mostly playing cop and soldier and security guard, horsing around with his buddies. But we were sleeping in the cramped 3-tier bunks the sailors used, eating in their mess halls and touring the navigation and other facilities. We took off our hats while eating, to remember those who didn’t come back.
The boys were watching a movie about the previous Hornets and the wars they’d been in. They were politely interested, and super tired from a big day. I went to get them some chips, and heading back I saw my little guy running in my direction. “They blew up Japan!” he told me breathlessly. “It was for real.”
How I wanted to tell him it was all a pretend fantasy he could stay rolled up in forever, catching the bad guy and saving the day. Would it be so bad to give him a bit more of that?
He looked in my face. “Yes, sweetie, it was for real.”