There is death and then there is fear of death. In my mind, these are two very different things. Death itself is final while fear of death is never ending. In death, we must, by definition, continue to live without the person we have lost. But fear of death prevents us from living; instead we become paralyzed by our fears. Death, once confirmed, does not provide us with the illusion that we can undo it. But fear of death hoodwinks us into thinking we can intervene; we can manipulate the future and outsmart death. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we cannot undo death, we do have an opportunity to break the fear of death cycle.
Having worked in a pediatric intensive care unit, I am no stranger to the death of children. I think we can all agree that the death of a child is, by far, a parent’s greatest fear. We can hardly speak of it without trembling. I have handed dead infants to mothers to hold for the very last time. I have watched grown men collapse while sobbing. I have gently placed dead children’s bodies in the cold drawer in the morgue. I have thought about what these parents will face when they go home; the child’s room, the toys, the photographs and the memories. I know that their homes will be deadly silent and that no amount of comforting arms will actually be comforting. I recognize that many will end up divorced, especially if the death is related to an accident. But I also know, with time, they will come to terms with their loss. So you might find it odd when I tell you that death is not always as devastating as fear of death. Let me explain.
In our modern world, I have seen families desperately clinging to life, insisting on every intervention known to medicine in order to keep their child alive. It doesn’t matter that their child is brain dead or will spend the rest of his life attached to a respirator. And no one can tell them what’s ahead at the moment they make the decision to do everything known to man to save their child. They can’t see their future, but I can. I know what happens to families with children who require care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Often the child ends up in a nursing home until they die of one complication or another. The guilt settles in and families are virtually torn apart. So here is a question; are we obsessed with saving our children at all costs or are we really obsessed with saving ourselves from loss?
When I attend my parent meetings, I am acutely aware of this fear of death undercurrent in all conversations. Parents say things like, what if I refuse to provide him with shelter and he freezes to death? What if I don’t give her a ride to her meetings and she relapses and overdoses and dies? What if I don’t give him money and he returns to dealing drugs because he can’t get any other kind of work and then he is shot by a ruthless drug dealer who, unlike my child, is a real drug dealer? The ‘what ifs’ are never ending and I can’t help but admit that they do speak to creative, although morbid, imaginations. Trying to anticipate every life scenario and projecting every conceivable negative outcome is not only futile but exhausting. Behind these neurotic mental gymnastics lies an important question. Is the primary concern that the child continues to be alive or is the primary concern to ascertain that the parent in no way contributed to the death of the child or or is the primary concern that the parent doesn’t suffer the loss of their child? Is this whole self-defeating circle of irrational thinking really about saving our children or is it about saving ourselves? Ask yourself this: if you could be guaranteed that your child would live to be 100 years old, would you be OK if they chose to live out their lives as an addict, on the streets, dealing drugs?
Here is a scenario. Your husband is about to leave for work and you run after him to remind him to pick up something at the grocery store before he returns home. You chat a bit about what’s for dinner. He leaves and is killed in a horrible car accident 3 blocks from your house. Do you believe that if only you had not run after him and had that brief conversation, he would have missed being involved in the accident? Are you somehow at fault? Let’s look at it another way. What if you had the brief conversation and he had missed the horrible accident? How much time can anyone spend scrutinizing the moments of their day as to whether or not those moments were the direct cause of actual outcomes?
Death is inevitable. We all die. Some of us have short lives and some of us have very long lives. Some of us can anticipate the end because we are ill or quite old but for others, death is unexpected. Sometimes people cause other people to die and sometimes people save others from dying. Those who are left behind will suffer; there is no way around that. Losing a child is thought to be one of the hardest losses because we see our children as an extension of ourselves. I understand this, but to spend our lives in constant turmoil about the threat of a premature death is neither healthy nor productive. To spend our time attempting to manipulate and orchestrate their lives in order to avoid the possibility of death is insane.
Sit down and think about death. How many people in the history of mankind have lost one or more children? Millions. Fearing death will no more eliminate its possibility than fearing a tornado will alter its path. If I guaranteed you that your child would die tomorrow, would you want to curl up in a ball and cry uncontrollably or would you want to hold your child and tell him you love him and you’ll miss him and you are so glad that he has been a part of your life? How will you mourn her death, honor her life, and cope with your sadness? Go to the place you dread and sit there. Instead of thinking about all the ways you can intervene to assure they don’t die, think about how you will face their death. Go into detail. Plan their funeral. Write their obituary. Be there, sit there.
Now let it go. Know that you will survive whatever happens. Stay in the present. Take a deep breath. Be grateful for this day and this moment. Acknowledge that you have no magical powers. Nothing you do will be the cause of your child’s death in the same way that nothing you do is the cause of your child’s addiction and nothing you do will be the cause of his or her recovery. Whatever happens will happen. I have friends who have lost children. One lost her two children to separate accidents 6 months apart. One lost her only baby to H Flu Meningitis. One lost her son to suicide. One lost her child to drowning. None of us are immune to this possibility. It is the risk we take when we have children. It is the risk we take when we love. We are vulnerable, yes, but not responsible. Life is responsible. This is life. We have no more control than all the parents who lost their children to pertussis or influenza or cholera or accidents or murder.
Courage is not the same as fearless. Courage is about conquering our fears, stepping into our authority and facing them head on. We must not allow our fear of death to paralyze our ability to live life. Nor can we allow our fear of death to paralyze the freedom of others to live their lives. We are not the gatekeeper of death; we are the traveler in life.