Our goldfish, Scooby, was swimming upside down. At first, we thought it was cool. Maybe he was trying to impress us with some new trick? “Ooh! Look Mommy, he’s the coolest fish, ever!” my son gushed with his face pressed up against the glass. A few days later Scooby was just upside down, not really swimming anymore, but floating. Yep, he was dead and gone to the big aquarium in the sky. For a moment, I didn’t know what to say to my seven year old. We’ve never had a pet die before, so I was expecting tears, hugs and lots of comforting. My son watched me take Scooby out of the tank and looked sad. “He’s gone, buddy, sorry,” I whispered, “He lived a good little life though.” I hugged him. He sniffed. Then he raised his eyebrows and said, “Can we get another one now? Please?” and that was the extent of our Big Talk about Death.
Death is such a taboo subject. My parents never really spoke of death when I was growing up. Sure, my mother would point at old photos of relatives and say “she died of tuberculosis” or “he died in a car crash.” Death was some mysterious thing that happened to Other People. As a kid, I had a vague feeling that death meant people simply disappeared, sometimes when they’re old and sometimes tragically, when they are young. But I didn’t start to question what happens after we die until two things happened when I was 21.
First, in the spring of 1991, my beloved dog of 15 years had to be put to sleep. My own father cried that day she died and I had never seen him cry before. Then, a few months later, he would also die suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 53. To say these two events were earth-shattering for me would be an understatement. I was lost in a deep, dark place. I found myself at the college library, pouring over books on death and dying. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on, so I could wrap my head around why my dad wasn’t here anymore. And the more important question: where is he now?
I grieve for my dad even though it’s been almost 19 years. I look back now at my twenties and I realize I spent years obsessing over death. I was extremely sad, depressed, distressed, anxious and alone. I’m sure I had to go through all of those dark emotions to get to that place, someplace in life where I feel secure and accept life and death. I’m almost there.
Every day I feel more and more alive and content. I am simply happy to have the family and friends around me. I take in every moment I have with them and truly cherish the time we have together. As I near middle age, I am slowly beginning to be okay with the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death.
My son asks me about the grandfather he never met and I tell him stories. He listens to me, but he isn’t sad. He doesn’t ask me what happens after death or why people die. He just matter-of-factly says to me “I’ll meet him someday in heaven, right?” Death to him isn’t scary or mysterious but just a fact. He doesn’t spend time brooding about it. He is full of happiness and life, as a seven year old should be. I cringe when I think about the day my son will be faced with the death of someone he loves dearly. But, for now, as I watch my son race around the yard, grinning and laughing hysterically, I want to be like him. Not full of fear and uncertainty, but peace and contentment. I know I can do it. I am almost there.