“Am I going to die?”
That was the question my 4-year-old asked me today.
It shouldn’t have surprised me, because our family cat just died a couple weeks ago. And maybe surprise isn’t the right word for how I felt when she asked. But I definitely felt thrown by it. And unprepared, even though everyone who knows me would tell you that this kind of question is right up my alley. I think about death a lot. I talk about death a lot, to many different kinds of people, including many children. If anyone would know how to answer that question, it would be me.
But knowing how to answer it wasn’t the hard part. It was giving the answer, while every part of my being was begging me to give a different one that was the challenge. “Just change the subject!” a voice in my head shouted. “Tell her why it’s okay!” suggested another. “Just lie!” they all said.
And it was the fact that I couldn’t do anything about the answer that was a challenge. And the fact that the answer is absolutely guaranteed to be so, no matter how badly I want it not to be. And no matter how badly she wants it not to be. This kid, this sweet, innocent child who I would do anything in my power to protect, will die. And that’s not subject to debate.
Nor is it frivolous information. It’s not like it’s something she’s just as well off not knowing. That’s the kicker. Even if I was morally okay with lying to her, there’s also the fact that she is a mortal, sentient, conscious being. And that means that she has only her lifetime to come to terms with her own death. And she cannot come to terms with something that is hidden from her. When she asks that question, she deserves an answer. The answer. And she critically needs that answer, painful though it may be – for both of us – now.
So what I did what I had to do, and with my whole heart aching and my best attempt at gentleness, I gave her the only answer that belonged at the end of that question.