On dying {Moments from Motherhood}

A small, shaky voice comes from the top of the stairs. It's 8.19pm and I put him to bed 40 minutes ago. "I'm sorry Mummy because I know it's bedtime but I have a bad thought in my head and it won't go away and I can't sleep with it there". I tell him to come down and he crawls into my lap. I ask him what the bad thought is and he tells me that he is scared of growing up because he doesn't want to die.

Lest you think he's all deep thoughts and philosophising on life, his favourite word is currently poo, and he is obsessed with twerking. So, you know. This Is Five. However the dying and death conversation is one we have from time to time, it just hasn't happened for a while. Hearing the words death and dying come from my five year old baby sting me like salt water in cut. I squeeze him closer, not sure what I should say. These big things always seem to come out of the blue, knocking me momentarily. The usual "Don't worry, you don't need to think about it" tactic doesn't work, he knows that the day will come and he just doesn't know how to stop it. I can feel his heart thumping through his bony chest, he is struggling to suppress tears. He tells me that he imagined heaven falling out of the sky and dead people falling down on him. I'm surprised by the depth of the imagination, and heart broken he came up with the image. We aren't religious but have had a few conversations about various beliefs in previous discussions. I remind him that heaven is only there if you believe in it, and some people don't, they believe other things. And he wants to know what so I remind him about reincarnation. Straight away I regret it. His tears start to flow and he becomes distraught at the thought of leaving his body behind, at not having himself. He starts to describe what's he's picturing; his body dead, and through sobs tells me how his eyes will be closed and he won't be able to open them. I can feel him spiralling and feel desperately like I need to calm him and make it better.

To balance a five year old who is quite advanced in language and understanding, yet is still only five, is something I struggle with. It's a part of motherhood I didn't prepare for. He has always been a talker, from teeny tiny he spoke quickly and fluently. He likes to name - feelings and places and objects. The world and it's contents are just waiting to be discovered and labelled. And so we do talk a lot. I feel so lucky that he can express what he's experiencing - obviously in many ways it makes parenting easier, it takes away some of the guess work. But at other times, like now, I wish he didn't know about these things, that these words didn't come so easy to him. That his understanding wasn't quite so robust. Asking me questions where the answer is definitive and set and I can't change it or make it go away. Death is not a problem I can solve for him, for anyone.

I default to my fail safe parenting tool, distraction. I persuade him that we will make a cosy den in bed and I will sing ten green bottles to him. We will cuddle and sing until his mind is gently lulled out of the thoughts which make him cry. Distract distract distract. I carry him back up the stairs.

We lie in bed together and he tells me that he doesn't think it will work, that he is still worried. We make a den and I snuggle into him. By nature he is not much for physical affection. As he has always been a talker, he has always been happier next to me, not on me. Holding hands softly instead of being carried. He is not one for kisses, he prefers to blow them. But now he pulls my arms around him and squeezes me so tightly that it takes me by surprise and I realise how shaken he is. He tells me "I'm holding on and won't let go". I sing ten green bottles softly in his ear. When I am finished, he asks for another song. I sing Do Re Me, the song we would sing to him every night until he was 3. When I'm finished I ask him what his favourite part of the day was. This is our daily ritual - favourite part of the day, and we've already done it but I think that maybe if I can change the tape playing in his head, he'll be ok. So much of parenting is distraction, right? Distract the baby with this toy so she relinquishes the fork she's about to stab her eye with. Distract the five year old with stories and songs so the bad thoughts subside. Distract distract distract. We talk about seeing friends and playing at the park and painting. He is still holding me tight. I tell him that I like the cuddles. He tells me that he loves cuddles and we talk about how they make us feel better when we are sad, or even better when we are happy. I'm transported for a moment to being little enough to crawl into my Mum's lap and how the comfort of her physical presence, her body enveloping me, was so reassuring. I hope so much that I am that for him. He asks me to sleep with him and I tell him that I won't fit because he likes to sleep in a star shape. He finds this information hilarious - something he didn't know about himself. I tell him he sleep kicks me and talks sometimes too, and the giggles come on strong. Distract distract distract.

The gentle cuddles and songs and talk seemed to have worked, he tells me I can go and get ready for bed, that he is ok now. I tuck him in and kiss his forehead. He tells me he loves me.

I walk downstairs feeling a little dazed, and burst into tears. I was fine when I was with him but the heartbreaking words and his sobs come back to me and I all I want is my husband who is still at work. I want to talk about it with the one person who knows him as well as I do; who is as besotted with this sensitive soul as I am. I want him to tell me that I did the right thing and handled it in the right way.

Feeling our way around this stuff is hard. Our culture is not one that deals with death well, if at all. My Mum is Catholic and I was raised with a heaven. For me it was an immense comfort as a child, when my Nan died she became Nanny in Heaven. Gone from here to somewhere else, not just gone. It is still how I think of her, even though any belief in God or Heaven are long over for me. A few years ago when my maternal Grandmother died I bought a book for my Mum ' The Tibetan art of Living and Dying'. I need to read it again, but I remember how it detailed death being a big art of the cultural conversation from birth. I find myself wanting a book for Sachin, something that will help him when he feels like this. It's part of my coping strategy for many situations, to read.  At the same time I also don't want to talk about it more than is necessary. I can only be led by him, I suppose, and always be there to hold him and sometimes talk open and honestly. Sometimes it just doesn't feel like enough.

We're at an interesting time in his childhood. Traits that have been around since babydom are showing themselves as a part of who he is, not just phases. His sensitivity in many areas are coming to the fore and I hope we handle it right for him so that it becomes an asset and not a part of himself he struggles with. Sifting out the things that need more attention and things that we can slowly pull him away from is tough. In the meantime, I'll read books and talk to other parents and always be here for den building and singing whenever he needs it. Let's hope that's enough.

I'd love to know how other parents have handled to death conversation - and whether you have different cultural conversations going on...

Image by Kanae Sato

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