By Lea Grover
“Mommy? Will you still love me when you’re dead?”
My six-year-old asks me this question a lot. She is a little focused on whether or not her parents will still love her once they’ve died. I’m 100% certain this is because her father has brain cancer.
I’m Jewish, and I often think of myself as an atheist, and that means I have pretty complicated beliefs about what happens to a person when they die. I try to be honest about death as much as possible, letting my children know that every single person dies, because life isn’t and can’t be forever, and that’s okay. I let them know that being dead isn’t scary, it’s just what happens when you’re not alive anymore. I desperately don’t want them to be afraid of death, or of somebody they love dying. I don’t say that when she asks me, though. I usually say, “Yes, honey. My love will always be there, and I’ll love you forever and ever and ever.”
My six-year-old and her twin sister both show signs of the strain of living with their father’s astrocytoma. One is fixated on the idea that we will all love each other even after we’ve died, an idea that gives her a great deal of comfort. Her twin has internalized the strain, and instead shows it by becoming hyper-emotional over increasingly minute elements of life she wants to control.
Her kindergarten teachers have taken me aside a few times to let me know she needs help controlling her emotions. I don’t tell them it’s hard to control your emotions when you know something big and scary is happening, and no one is capable of explaining it to you.
As much as I want to, I am doing a terrible job making their daddy’s cancer understandable. What we know as adults is that cancer is never something you can rationalize. I don’t want to scare them, so I tell them he’s getting better, which is only a half truth.
He is getting better, or rather, he’s not getting worse. That’s not what they want to know. What they want to know is what happens if he doesn’t get better? What does that look like? What happens to them? I have told them that lots of people get cancer, and lots of people get better. I haven’t told them that lots of people with brain cancer get better. I have told them that sometimes people die from cancer. I’ve told them that daddy has a device he wears on his head to help his cancer get better. I’ve also told them he probably has to wear it forever.
The looming unanswered and unasked question is, “Will daddy die?” And I have skirted it as much as I can, because I don’t want to answer it with any phrase other than, “Everybody dies, someday, probably not for a long, long time, and that’s okay.”
It’s a hard thing to live with as an adult, the idea that somebody you love is seriously ill, and going to be ill until they pass away. It’s a hard thing to live with when it’s you, when it’s your spouse, when it’s your child. But as adults, we are capable of so much. We can do our own research, we can express our fears and confusions to others in a way that can be constructive. We can run marathons or donate to charities or shave our heads in solidarity, and it makes us feel better to be doing something, anything, to make sense of the helpless feelings that come with this experience.
My children don’t have that, because these are new emotions for them. Learning to live despite constant, nagging fear is something that has taken me years to achieve. My six year old twins hardly stand a chance.
So when the kindergarten teacher tells me my kid had a meltdown about nothing in the playground, that her whole afternoon she was anxious and quick to cry, I don’t talk to her about daddy’s illness.
I wait until her twin sister asks me, as she does whenever emotions run high, “Will you love us even after you’re dead?”
“Yes, honey. I’ll love you forever and ever, even after I’m dead, and after that, and after that.”
Lea Grover is a writer and speaker living on Chicago’s south side. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies, on websites ranging from Cosmopolitan to AlterNet, and soon in her first memoir. She speaks about sex positivity in parenting, and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.
Art by Mary Ann Cooper