When I was 10 years old, I struggled deeply and constantly with the idea that I would die and that everyone I knew would die. My mom would die. My dad would die. And death was permanent and not something I had made up or could get out of. I don’t know why this suddenly hit me at age 10. Nothing in particular brought it on and nothing in particular made it go away a year later. I thought about the world around me and how I’d never see it again. I couldn’t wrap my brain around this and couldn’t understand how I could ever cope with this idea. I couldn’t believe that all the people I saw at the grocery store, on the bus, at school, could possibly continue living knowing that death was on the horizon. I cried myself to sleep some nights. Other nights, I couldn’t sleep at all, kept awake by fear. Sometimes during the day, I could not concentrate at school because I was so preoccupied with the fact that one day, I would simply not be anymore. Today I am, tomorrow I am not. After a year, adolescent and teenage stuff took over and my obsessive fear of death faded. Every now and then, though, if I thought about the fact that there would come a time when I no longer existed, I could throw myself into a paralyzing and momentarily debilitating panic mode.
Given this experience in my own life, when my daughter approached age 10, I thought often about whether she would go through what I did. I thought about what I would say if she talked to me about fear of death. I asked myself whether I could raise it with her and feel competent or satisfied with the way I might advise or comfort her. I watched her and listened to things she said, keeping a keen ear out for signs she might be struggling. Then, several months after she’d turned 10, she called me upstairs one night after I had put her to bed. She had gotten into my bed and was shaking and crying. I knew when I walked into my room that the fear of death was upon her. And I was so unprepared despite all of my thinking and anticipation that this day would come. I sat down by her and wrapped my arms around her heaving fear-filled body as she told me that she was thinking about death and dying. My heart sank and I didn’t know what to say. I knew the grip this fear could have and what I would have given for her never to experience it. At first, I rambled about how good health and long life run in our family, and pointed out her youth and vibrancy. I told her how much I loved her. But I couldn’t tell her anything that would change the underlying fact that death is real and that she would die. I rocked her and finally better words came to me, by God’s goodness and grace. I explained how much God loves her, and that no matter what, he would not leave her. And that, in the end, although it was true that we all would die, she would be with Jesus and I would be there with her. I really thought I was onto something now and she seemed to calm down a bit, the tears coming a little slower.
She pulled away from me slightly and looked at me with wet eyes. “I know that God loves me. But, Mom, what if God loves me so much that he wants to take me to be with him now.” Like so many other parenting moments, I was not ready for this one. I thought, “Hmmm. Good point.” She cried harder now as if her death was imminent because of how much God loved her. I then mumbled something about God needing her here so he could bring his love to others through her. Eventually, exhaustion took over. I think just talking and getting her out of her own head helped the most. Nothing I said seemed useful really.
Several months later, the fear returned. I couldn’t come up with anything new or better to say. I had no answers as to how to deal with this fear. Death is a fact. How do you make a 10-year old okay with this? So this time, I just said: “I’m sorry you’re scared. I think we need to ask Jesus for help.” To my great surprise, she said: “Yeah, that’s what I usually do.” I smiled and asked: “Does it help?” “Yes,” she said, “it really helps. He lifts it off of me.” This rendered me speechless. I have no idea what God is doing inside my daughter’s heart and mind when she turns to him and asks for his help. The fact that he brings her peace and lifts off the fear, allowing her to fall asleep, is almost too much to take.
Whenever the fear returns, and it does, she asks for Jesus’ help and if I am with her, we ask together. Just the other night, we did this and I realized that although I don’t struggle with the fear of death anymore, I struggle with other things. And so often, I try to think my way out of them or become resigned to the fact that they will simply burden me until they don’t anymore just like the fear of death. Sometimes I don’t even think to ask Jesus for his help. Sometimes I think certain things I struggle with are just too insignificant and it’s better to save my requests for something really serious. What peace I am foregoing. No more.
“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:5-7) I will ask Jesus for help. No big explanations needed. No big words, no philosophical thoughts about why I am fearful or anxious. Like a child, I will just say: “Jesus, please help me.” He is near. He will lift it off.