Little Mirrors of Mortality

How one late-in-life parent discusses death with his children.

A father and daughter stand over a grave in the rain.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

A few weeks ago, the dermatologist discovered a mole on the right side of my torso that she cryptically called “funny.” She promptly, painfully scooped it out with what appeared to be a needle with a teensy melon baller on the business end. I had to wait a few days to learn that it was really only funny in the sense of “weird-looking” and not skin-cancer “funny.” During the interregnum, I imagined how I might face the end.

This episode followed a recent plane ride out to Vegas that was bumpy enough to trigger my deepest fear that, presidential boasts notwithstanding, flying is actually a high-risk gamble—one my family and I were about to lose.

In other words, I’m a bit of an alarmist. Sometime in my late 30s, I developed a bones-deep fear of death that gets triggered whenever I’m visited by any new symptom or condition or, as with flying, any situation where I feel a loss of control.  I’d bet the timing of the onset of my fretting had something to do with coming out at that advanced age and having all my assumptions and carefully constructed barricades about the course of my life destroyed. I had gained authenticity, but I had also become unmoored. So I began to fret about the contingency of everything—including, of course, life.

That was decades ago, though. Now, more of my brain space is taken up figuring out how to think about these mortal matters as a parent. The issues have achieved a different, but no less chilling, prominence.

Very soon after becoming a father in middle age, my anxiety became kid-centric. I became concerned about what would happen to my children if I were to die. I worried about all of the ways my demise would traumatize them. What would their lives be like financially? (I’ve tried to safeguard my family from ruin in this event, but there would still be challenges for them.) And more importantly, how would they ever get over the loss of a parent, emotionally? How would it affect their relationship with their surviving dad?

This is a common fear among parents. I often reflect on a conversation I had with a friend a few years ago, when our kids were quite young. She had just had a cancer scare—following a terrible bout of Lyme disease—and she was seriously facing the possibility of death. “I thought I could handle it,” she said, “but I have two small children.” And then she opened her arms, in an oddly moving gesture that seemed both to symbolically embrace her children and to signal the emptiness she would be leaving behind. Even the thought of this void is too much for parents of young children to bear.

In recent years, my anxiety about leaving my children bereft has decreased at least a little. They’re teens now, and my confidence is growing that they’d be able to somehow absorb the loss, or at least not be destroyed by it. But now, of course, they themselves understand the finitude of life and, though they can’t yet “feel” it, their own mortality. So their fears are growing—about their own deaths and that of those they love.

Recently, I was driving one of my daughters home from swim practice on a face-freezing evening, and we started talking about the flu. She knew that this has been a wretched season for the illness and that the vaccinations were doing a lousy job at prevention this time around. So even though we’ve all had our shots, she was a bit spooked by news that a few kids had died, one rather suddenly, from the disease. Was she going to get flu and die, she wondered? What about any of her four grandparents, all of whom are close to, or in, their 80s?

Well, of course flu could kill any of us. And that’s not the only unimaginable thing that could happen, as countless grieving parents can attest. But how to have the conversation without freaking her out even more? I came up with something like this: “Yes, the flu is terrible, and some people do die every year. But you’re young and healthy, so don’t worry.” But then, as she usually does, she dug deeper and asked whether that meant that her grandparents could die from the flu. I went for finesse. Yes, your grandparents are old and at more risk than you are. But they’ve had their shots, and even if they don’t work completely, if they did get the flu, it would probably not be so severe.

And then, because I teach public health law and never know when to shut the hell up, I mentioned that it was just 100 years ago that the infamous Spanish flu killed an estimated 50 million people globally and (yes, I said this too) exacted a particularly devastating toll on young and healthy people—the group that usually does best at fighting it. So I didn’t exactly end up assuaging her concerns. In fact, I managed to worry myself, too.

Although I went way too far, my daughter didn’t seem fazed—she seems to have quickly calculated that the odds of anything terrible happening to her were minuscule and returned to whatever she was doing on her phone. Death is still too abstract to her—or, more accurately, just abstract enough. She knows that her grandparents aren’t going to live forever, but neither are her parents. She’d be more comfortable with two younger dads, I think, at least along the dimension of worries about mortality.

But the fact is that my daughters do have older dads and superannuated grandparents. So death is likely going to surround them sooner than it will their peers. Recently, my mother’s older sister died. They knew her just well enough to realize the loss, and we spoke frankly about her declining health and likely soon demise as the end approached. We took them out of school and spent the day in Connecticut at services and events remembering her life. It was the first significant human death they’d experienced.

Religion is one way to discuss these issues with kids, but not for us. We’re not believers, and there are times when I envy the comfort that the faithful are able to impart to their children about how those who leave go on to a better place, later to be reunited with us. The absence of these balms leaves us with a harder message to sell: This is the only life we’ve all got, and while that’s scarier and less comforting to kids (to say nothing of their parents), we abide in the hope that they’ll learn to live with the knowledge of death. It’s not been easy for me, but I’m trying to make it less traumatic for my kids. Maybe that’s not possible, but at least they know the subject’s not off-limits—since death will ultimately come for us all, the least we can do is talk about it.