Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Thanatos, not Oedipus

When did you first become aware of death? That you could die?

In spite of having a pretty good memory for lots of events in early childhood, I don't remember. I remember seriously choking on a pork chop when I must have been about four, and my dad shoving his finger in my throat and popping it out. I was scared, but I'm pretty sure just because of instinct scared. I didn't at the time realize the implications of the incident.

Around the same time, my cat got hit by a car while I was waiting for the school bus with my sisters. I wouldn't go to school, cried for a long time, felt sick.

Maia is worried about dying. I haven't figured out yet HOW aware she is of this, but twice now (once after falling and getting a minor boo boo, once randomly talking about me leaving her at daycare and her not wanting to go) she has said she "doesn't want to get dead." She's also been very worried about me "getting lost"-- which, I think, translates to mommy not coming back, ever.

I try to reassure her. But how do you really reassure a child about this? You want them to be careful, to not do stupid things that could get them seriously hurt or, yes, killed. It's a possibility for kids sometimes because they take risks (run in a parking lot lately? kids do all the time if you don't constantly remind them).

But she's so sad, and she's coming up with this at awkward times and I know she's thinking about it. She's seen a few animals die-- one of the fish from our pond was partially eaten-- and bugs fall into the pool all the time. And then, I'm sure, we've seen something on TV. Even Nemo's mom dies, and that's rated G.

I think (and here's the title link) that this is possibly the real identity crisis of childhood. It's not about wanting to replace your parent with your other parent. That's what Freud, obsessed with the sex part of it, got wrong. It's more about realizing that you don't go on forever, that you meet with death and that when your parents get freaked out because they don't want you climbing on top of the 12 foot off the ground playfort, it's because "very bad boo boos" happen.

I'm not entirely sure how to handle it. I don't want to freak her out, but I also hate to lie to her. Stuff happens, right? What is pretend, what is real, is it possible for mommy or daddy or other people to "get lost?"

This is probably where being better Christians than we are comes in handy, because you can reassure kids that going to Heaven to be with the angels would be okay. I'm a spiritual person and believe in an almighty being (a conversation for another time... not really "God" per se) but I am not really a believer in angelic choirs and a big white guy in flowing robes. And I'm not exactly sure I know what I think happens to us after death. So how to reassure a child?

Perhaps the real crisis comes with being a parent who has to learn these hard lessons, again, as an adult who treasures their kids more than anything else ever before or since. I'd like to get this parenting thing as right as possible, but man, these are the tough ones.