Big Fear: Who Will Care for Me If You Die?
My friend, Michele was standing at a red light in Clarendon last weekend. Here's the exchange she witnessed, in her own words:
A small girl, holding her mother's hand says: "So if you were dead, I would have to live somewhere else." The mother wasn't listening. She said, "What?" The little girl repeated herself: "If you were dead, I would have to live somewhere else." The mother said, "Why would you think that?!"
Michele offered another way the mama could've engaged in conversation with her child: "A better response might have been, "Yes, that's true. But I imagine you will be a grown up lady when that happens. And the good news is that if it happens before that, you will go live with Aunt Martha and Uncle Tom. So, no need to worry." Little ones listen, people. They listen, and so should we."
I was part of a similar exchange with a different outcome.
"Who will take care of me if my GG dies?"
The boy was 9. His mama had died. His grandmother had taken over his care.
I offered: "Let's think about this a little bit. Your GG takes care of you now. Your GG is healthy."
"Yes, but she could die, too."
"She could, you're right. No one expects that to happen to your GG but you didn't expect your mom to die either, did you."
"What do you think about making a list of people who could take care of you if GG were to die...even though we don't think she will?"
Eyes wide. Already Thinking.
His list was 12 people long. Think about that. He needed to write down the names of 12 people who could care for him. Not only that, he needed to say the list aloud many times, AND he needed someone to hear him speak his list aloud.
"If GG dies than I'll live with Sarah. If Sarah dies then I'll live with Uncle Mark "...and on it went.
When I next saw the boy, he reported the list was affixed to his bedroom door as a reminder that he had many people who could care for him if ever GG could not. His GG understood her sweet grandson was doing exactly what he needed to do to take care of himself. She didn't chastise. She didn't tell him he was being silly. She didn't worry about sticky tape messing up the clean door in her house. She honored what he needed.
The girl in Clarendon and the boy with the list both needed reassurance that someone would care for them. The girl did not get what she needed, I suspect, because her mama didn't understand the message behind the words.
The girl at the crosswalk said to her mama: "If you were dead, I would have to live somewhere else."
"Mom! I'm scared! A horrible shooting happened and I heard about it! Mommmmm! If someone shoots you, if you die, who in the world will take care of me?"
The mama didn't know how to decode the message and deferred. Or maybe she was too overwhelmed with her own pain to even try. I pray an adult somewhere in that child's life will hear her real question, answer it, and hug her tightly.
Over the next few weeks I'll be writing about the language of grieving kids---how to recognize it when you hear it or see it. Without sharing identities, I'll be offering important stories of children and families who have lived through loss. I want to teach loving adults to recognize nuances in the ways kids communicate about death, dying, and grief. I want to teach loving adults how to hold space for grieving kids so they can heal.
I want to change the conversation around death and dying in this country. Less taboo. More honest. Less, 'Why would you think that?" More, "You're right, if I died, you would have to live somewhere else. Let's talk about it."
Let's talk about it.