Bedtime has been really rough lately. It isn’t pajama war or soap-sud-phobia. We’ve managed to overcome both —eventually. One glimpse of a dentist’s needle brought forth a new era of thorough teeth brushing. We’ve even managed to work out the kinks on bedtime book negotiations along with who gets the first or last hug and kiss.
Just as I let my guard down, believing I was standing at the pearly bedtime blissdom gates, a cold bony hand grabbed the back of my shirt and yanked me back into nighttime hell.
“Mama, Mama I don’t want to die. Please Mama, I am so scared, I don’t want to die.”
Every night, the grim reaper barges in at bedtime. He has his clutches on my child’s psyche, and I don’t know how to pry him off. Usually during our last embrace, or sometimes when I am pulling their door shut as we whisper our last love yous, terror rears it’s ugly head and my little one starts crying that she doesn’t want to die.
If I am close enough, she grasps me. You can feel the desperation in her fingertips, digging into the back of my neck, as she clings to me terror.
These are the moments I desperately wish I had a religion to fall back on. I want to look deep into my little girl’s eyes and tell her that she need not worry. That someday we will be reunited as angels up in heaven. I want to weave a wonderful tale of white shining lights and love and clouds she can pull around her to feel safe, even long after I am gone.
I want to tell her we will be reborn again, and if she doesn’t stop punching her sister, she may end up as a one of those ants we squash as we set the table. I want to tell her our souls will orbit around the planet, waiting for a new body eventually starting a whole new cycle of adventures, maybe even giving us another chance to dance the mashed potato with John Travolta.
But the problem is I don’t believe. I don’t believe in anything. Hard as I try, I can’t lie. I can’t even bring myself to say the words: “Don’t worry sweetie, you and I won’t die for a very very long time.” Because a month ago, her little friend’s mother died of breast cancer. And my friend just lost her five-year-old nephew. I am afraid of jinxing myself and then seeing the betrayal and confusion on her face.
Every night, her tears and terror leave me wracked with guilt and sorrow. I am a mother. This is the one thing I am supposed to be able to do, to comfort my child. Yet, every night I fail.
I don’t know what the answer is, so I do what I do best: I wrap my arms around her and tell her that I love her. I tell her part of the beauty of life is that like a story, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That stories with no ending get boring. I tell her that we are like books, and when I am gone, she can re-read my book by looking at photographs and replaying her memories. I tell her that our bodies will turn into the butterflies she loves to chase and the flowers she loves to smell.
She is almost five and some nights she doesn’t want to be a butterfly. She wants to be Claudy and stay with her mama forever. Those nights, I talk to her about our spirit. I tell her I don’t know what happens, but some people believe we end up close to those we love. I tell her I hope they are right and I will be waiting for her. I tell her the best thing we can do is try and enjoy each day together and love each other –maybe picking up all the Lego pieces from the floor so mama doesn’t go crazy is a good start.
I don’t know that it is working. I do know she eventually goes to sleep and wakes up all smiles in the morning. I don’t want her to live in fear the way I do, but if I am honest with you, there is a part of me that wants to live with my little girls forever too.
It’s quite a common phobia at this age, and your daughter’s anxiety is perfectly normal. This is the age at which they discover that life changes, and having been exposed to the huge changes death brings about, she’s expressing her feelings in the only way she knows how.
I *do* have religion to “fall back on” and your answers are very similar to what I told my kids at this age. That, upon dying, we are reunited with the universe. We happen to call it “God,” but the truth is the same however you put it out there.
Hang in there, Mama. You’re doing great, and this too, shall pass. <3