Over the last few months, my 7-year-old daughter has been asking a lot of questions about death, dying, the soul, and heaven. The trigger was the opening scene in the movie UP, where Mr. Frederickson and his wife Ellie’s life history is briefly presented. This sequence always makes me cry. It’s a poignant story of love, life, and loss. And my 7-year-old is finally old enough to apply it to her own life.
You see, she has realized her own mortality. She now understands that someday, she’s going to die. And this terrifies her. She’s even more terrified that Mom, Dad, G.G., or Granddaddy will die first. She’s informed me that she wants us all to die together. That way no one will be left alone, either on Earth or in Heaven. It’s adorable, and yet sad that she’s thinking these thoughts.
She and I now have regular conversations about death and heaven. At first, she would come to me in tears, full of anxiety and dread. She tried talking to Daddy first, but his response was to tell her not to worry, that no one was going to die. But that didn’t work, in fact, it just upset her further, because she knows it’s not the truth. So she came to me instead. Two years ago my response might have been the same as Daddy’s. But now, after a couple years of therapy for bipolar depression, I know better. She needs empathy and validation. She needs to know that her curiosity about death is normal, and so is her fear. Now there are fewer tears and more questions.
I’ve done my best to reassure her that we’re all going to heaven. And convince her that heaven is a wonderful, beautiful place. A place better than anything she can imagine. Somewhere that we all want to go. But, like a 7-year-old, she’s sure she doesn’t want to be there unless Fairies, Bunny, and our dog Basil will be there too. I’m not going to tell her they won’t be there… because who knows for sure? And at her age, she doesn’t need all the technical details. At least, the little that we think we know.
I’ve told her repeatedly that it’s OK to be afraid of dying and afraid that others might die. It’s normal. We all feel that way. That’s why we need to remember to be kind to each other, to say “I love you,” and to give hugs often. We don’t know when we’re going to heaven. We have to live each day, knowing that we could die, yet hoping we have more time here on Earth. That uncertainty is very frightening when you’re 7.
What I haven’t told her is how her preoccupation with death and heaven has affected me. My bipolar depression is still uncontrolled, and I struggle with suicidal ideation on a regular basis. I’m tired of hanging on and running out of hope that things will get better. But my daughter… she has given me powerful motivation for fighting these self-destructive thoughts. She would be absolutely devastated if I died. Intellectually I thought that before, but now I know it. I’ve looked into her eyes and seen it. She loves me more than I deserve, and I don’t want to disappoint her in any way.
My personal religious belief is that people who kill themselves are not welcomed into heaven. Someday my daughter will be taught that as well. How will she reconcile that with her memories of me and our conversations about heaven? Will she question my love for her or blame herself? Will she ever accept that my suicide was due to my illness and not a rational choice? Not only that, but kids whose mothers commit suicide are three times more likely to kill themselves. She’s already at a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and bipolar, thanks to me. If I were to kill myself, my suicide would shatter her chance for a normal life.
When I’m in the clutches of severe depression, my mind is consumed with self-hatred and loathing. I feel unworthy of living and undeserving of love. In the depths of my despair, I am willing to hurt myself and end my own life. But am I willing to damage hers? Can I kill myself, knowing what it would likely do to her? The answer thus far has been a resounding NO. Children need love and stability, not trauma and grief. For her, my 7-year-old savior, I will press on. I cannot give up, I cannot give in.
I must keep fighting.