A letter to my son about death
I’m sorry that you’re feeling scared about dying. I’m glad that I was able to make you feel a bit happier, but I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.
It’s not as if you have anything to worry about – you’re a perfectly healthy four-year-old, so your expected remaining lifetime is an absolute eternity from that point of view. But you’ve realised that everyone dies, which means you’ll die eventually, and you’re having a hard time coming to terms with it. I sympathise – I remember how scary I used to find the prospect of death at that age. But your fears put me in a difficult position.
It would be nice to be able to tell you that we all die, but we live on in other people’s memories, and that you’ll get used to the idea. That would be the most honest expression of what I believe, but I have a sneaking suspicion that while you may come to agree with my view in time, it wouldn’t do much to calm your current fears. I’m not even very happy with my eventual compromise of saying that no one knows what happens when we die, and that it’s only the not knowing that makes it seem scary. I wish I could say more.
I wish I could reach into the Big Book of Lies for Children and start feeding you comforting platitudes about how you’ll go to heaven, it’ll be like waking up and going home, or even the not-entirely-untrue “you’ll go to the same place as all the people you love”. It wouldn’t be an honest reflection of my beliefs, it would just make you feel better. My intellectual honesty starts to fray at the point where you’re feeling hurt or upset, but it doesn’t vanish entirely.
Yes, I want to be completely honest with you. Yes, I think death is the final, absolute end for all of us. But when you’re in a state of existential angst, I’m neither dogmatic enough nor hard-nosed enough to say so. It wouldn’t make you feel any less worried, and that’s what matters to me above all. So I fudged my answer a bit, and deliberately held some possibilities open. If you’re feeling generous, you could say I was tailoring my answer to the audience.
I’m not going to make a habit of this. It’s an emergency response reserved for the times when you really need to be comforted, and I’ll make sure to explain properly when you’re old enough to understand. I don’t want to lie to you, but nor can I stand by and let you be consumed by a fear that’s clearly been dominating your thoughts recently.
So I’m sorry I couldn’t give you an answer that would completely satisfy you, and I’m sorry that I didn’t give you a full, honest explanation of what I think. I hope if you read this one day, you’ll understand my reasons, and that you’ll manage to forgive me.