Last night at bedtime, my son asked why everyone has to die one day. The thought of my sweet 7-year-old grappling with the weight of such a question hurt my heart. He looked so small tucked under a fleece blanket, clutching his favorite stuffed panda. How could the same little boy who just started second grade wearing a space backpack stuffed with bright, wide-ruled notebooks ask such a thing?
Perhaps my children are more aware of the inevitability of death than other kids their age due to the passing of various family pets over the past few years, or perhaps it’s the way death looms over our home in the form of my ailing, 96-year-old grandmother. Still, it seemed morbid coming from my young son. I have learned from experience that it’s best not to rush an answer to a child, so I decided to buy myself some time.
That’s a big question. Let me think for a minute.
As we lay in his twin-sized bed in the semi-darkness, I struggled to find an appropriate response. My eyes wandered around the room as if I might find an answer in the space mobile dangling from his ceiling fan or the detritus of building bricks and action figures in the corner.
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I was tired, the kind of exhausted when even my bones ached. It was the first Friday of the school year, and all I wanted to do was snuggle for a few minutes and slip away to my own bed. I had already successfully put my 3-year-old to sleep without a hitch. This was supposed to be the easy bedtime. The thought of brushing my own teeth seemed like an insurmountable feat, and now I had to come up with the meaning of life.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I had been here before. I could add this to the list of challenging questions my children have asked, always at bedtime: How does Santa get in our house without a chimney? Why do people get divorced sometimes? Where do babies come from?
It was true I desperately wanted to go to bed, but there is a reason kids always ask the big questions at bedtime.
Bedtime is when their little bodies and big minds can finally relax and begin to process the day’s events. There must also be a scientific reason involving the brain, but as a mom I know it’s because they feel safe. Here in this cocoon of blankets, too many stuffed animals, and the soft glow of a night light, my son is able to unlock his heart.
Framing it that way, my own heart no longer hurt, and I was no longer in a rush to go to sleep. I was honored to be the one he opens up to. More than that, I was relieved that my son has a comforting space in which to ask big questions. It is far better he ask his parents than struggle with them on his own or avoid asking them altogether. Finding meaning in life is part of growing up, and it doesn’t have to be lonely or scary.
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After a few moments, I said life wouldn’t be very special if it lasted forever. This wasn’t a good answer. Even in the dim light I could see the confusion and worry on my son’s face. Then I said our bodies eventually grow too old and tired, but you and I are still very young. I was getting closer. This response was too reductive, but at least he understood.
I wish I could say I found a perfect answer, but I finally settled on something simple and true.
I really don’t know why we have to die, but I do know that I am very lucky to be alive with you.
My son must have agreed because he wrapped his free arm around my neck and drifted off to sleep, restoring his energy for another busy day and more big questions to be asked at bedtime.
This time, instead of worrying about finding the perfect answer, I would just be grateful to be the one he was asking.