I quietly feared the moment when my son would ask why my dad wasn’t in his life. Like many parents, who wish to avoid discussing the proverbial “elephant” in the living room (those family secrets, unspoken expectations, and difficult topics), I wasn’t really prepared for how early or how I would answer some of my son’s questions. So, I was shocked when, as I tucked his 2 year-old body into bed one night, he whispered in the dark, “Mommy, where is your daddy?”
The truth is my dad died when I was young. My dad will only be a part of my son’s life through some shared memories and DNA. It is also true that he died from alcoholism and that my son was too young to know about that particular fact. Though I’d already begun our conversation about the circle of life, and about how important it is to take good care of our bodies. I wasn’t prepared for my son’s tender-hearted, painful realization that since my dad died when I was young, that I, too, could die while he’s still young; and that he, too, would someday die. Like the connecting links on a chain, my son’s toddler logic strung the reality of life and death together in seamless motion. I suddenly remembered what a good friend and also a mom of two young children, faced with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, once said to me, “Tell the truth, even though it may hurt. Just don’t make false promises.” So, I stayed away from promises about living to 100. Losing a parent early in life will teach you that kind of realism. However, when we take away some belief from our kids, such as our immortality, we need to replace such illusions with hope-infused beliefs.
Snuggled up with my son that evening twelve years ago, quietly crying together over the eventual loss of one another in some imagined future, I could honestly reassure him that my love for him is as strong as anything life can toss at us. And our love is likely to even outlast our death. Drawing on our trust, faith, and love for one another; we managed to create a little life raft that evening with our intertwined bodies. A raft we still rely on during tough times.
Since that night, as my son is approached adolescence (soon facing the possibility that a friend will offer him his first alcoholic drink), we have spoken much more candidly about our family’s history of alcoholism. We have discussed the risks associated with this genetic loading. The preventative steps we have taken as a family to confront addiction head-on to protect his generation include having open, honest, discussions about the realities of today’s peer pressure, substance use/abuse, and the nature of addiction itself. Such candid discussions are an indication that the tides have turned in my family’s favor this generation. Our conversations are not fear-based, but proactive and educational. Fear, after all, has a nasty way of bringing about exactly the result we may well want to avoid. I trust that by being open and honest, by modeling healthy behaviour, and by having started these difficult discussions early, that my son will always feel free to approach my husband or myself with any number of difficult topics.
In stark contrast to a Tibetan friend, Sonam, whom I met whilst living Japan in my late twenties, I did not grow up learning to meditate on my own death (a Buddhist practice with the aim of infusing reverence and gratitude for life through acceptance and a focus on the present moment). My daily childhood practice looked more like sharing in the family chore of sweeping the painful stuff under the living room carpet. When my dad died, there was little done to ritualize or honor his death, let alone talk about it. I was adrift in my own ocean of complicated grief for many years, with little land in sight. Sonam, in stark contrast, spoke of the peace and gratitude she felt about her father’s death when she, too, was in her teens. Peace, I could understand that with all her years of meditation. But, gratitude? She shared with me that her father had meditated and prepared for his death for months in advance. He had lived a good life and accepted his own death; he died peacefully with his family surrounding him in prayer. She possessed an uncanny grasp of both the preciousness and yet transitory nature of life. Sonam did not grieve for years, as I had. She had accepted her father’s fate, and dwelled in gratitude for the time she had had with him. She gained peace from his acceptance and grace in death. Ultimately, her religious faith was deeply grounding for her. Her faith seemed to strengthen her and offered her spiritual courage and hope for the future. It would take me many more years after losing my father to cultivate such a spiritual foundation.
My son and I have continued to talk about his grandpa over the years, looked at family photos together, and honored his life and death in other simple ways. At times my son, and then my daughter, have both expressed regret about not having had the chance to have met my father (though I admit to being grateful at times that they didn’t as he was a complicated, ill man when he died). The fact that I now have discussions with my children that I can’t with my own father is proof to me that life goes on in all it’s bittersweet grace. The Buddhist saying, Nam myoho renge kyo (which I learned in a meditation class, loosely translated as “The deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus flower blooms“) reminds us all that spiritual strength, beauty, and a reverence for the circle of life are possible through life’s most difficult experiences.
Upcoming: 10 Tips for Talking about Tough Stuff with Kids