Back Through the Fire

Smoke after a forest fire.
Photo by Joanne Francis on Unsplash

[Content note: cancer, illness, suicide]

In November, I had my last cancer-related surgery. My temporary tissue expanders were replaced with permanent breast implants, and I was instructed to give my body six weeks to recover, after which I could return to my usual activities.

After five weeks and 6 days, I gave in and started exercising. It was almost the New Year. It was deep winter, a time of planning and setting things in motion. I was finally done with treatment, and I was ready to live again.

So for the next six weeks, I lived. I worked out almost daily. I started my private practice. I made plans. I designed a backyard garden. I took classes, learned new things. I took on new roles at work. I returned to freelance writing.

For six weeks, I lived. I was determined to get back everything I’d lost to cancer, and then some. I enjoyed my time with family, unburdened at last by the demands of treatment or recovery. Having emerged unburnt from the fire, I felt that nothing could stand in my way.

For six weeks I lived like a person reborn. This lasted until February 13.

That day my mom told me she had cancer too. That day, my newfound momentum sent me clear off what I now realized was a cliff, and like the coyote in the cartoon, I looked down and found myself unmoored, unsafe, and spiraling down.

It was nothing like my own diagnosis, first of all. I never thought that “I’m thankful for the way I was diagnosed with cancer” would be a set of words my brain would assemble in that order. But I am. I got the call one day. I saw an oncologist the following day. Within a week, I had a clear diagnosis, a treatment plan, a second opinion confirming those things, and a team of medical professionals I trusted.

This was about as different from that as it could get. For starters, the initial “diagnosis”–the one my mom called me about on February 13–wasn’t even that. It was unfounded speculation from a rude, shaming primary care doctor. I let myself believe for a bit that it wasn’t true. But for the next six weeks, as my mom was bounced around between doctors, hospitals, and scan machines like a dented ping pong ball, the picture continually came into focus, then blurred again.

One day it was early-stage lymphoma. Another it was metastatic ovarian cancer. Some days, other diagnoses were thrown out like beanbags on a cornhole board–lung, stomach, liver, breast, uterine. Doctors would walk out of her exam room completely confident and optimistic, only to return subdued and humbled, their hypotheses disproven, without any others waiting in the wings to be tested.

Picture yourself surviving the worst thing you can imagine, and before your scars–literal ones, in my case–have even fully healed, that same thing happens to the person you love most. That was me.

My mom had always been the person I called when I was so desperately upset I couldn’t do anything else. Now I had lost even that. My parents, through no fault of their own, relied on me in completely unsustainable ways during that time. I found myself supporting both of them, trying to curb my spiraling panic whenever they talked about metastasis and preparing for the worst, comforting all three of my siblings (especially the two teenage ones), fielding calls from extended family and close family friends, driving an hour to question doctors at the hospital while sick with the flu, researching–always, always researching–calling and begging my oncologist to take on her case or make a referral, talking my mom down from panic attacks over the phone, using my own therapy appointments to try to figure out how to live if my mom dies.

I could’ve handled this for a week. Maybe two. The mind goes into crisis mode and you somehow push on.

But it lasted for six. By the third week, I was coming apart. I started to become paranoid almost to the point of delusion, refusing to believe anything any doctor said because so many of them had been wrong. When my mom finally had a vague diagnosis and some semblance of a treatment plan, my mind rebelled against it, refused to accept it, and I ranted like an unhinged person over the phone about how this was wrong, and they hadn’t done this or that test or ruled out this or that possibility, and they needed to find a “real” doctor and get another opinion.

To their credit, they did get more opinions. The opinions all converged on the fact that the particular way my mom’s cancer had played out was so statistically improbable that it had only been recorded 20 times in medical history.

By way of comparison, there have been 23.2 million cases of cancer recorded historically in the United States alone.

This broke my brain.

I walked through the world like a fading ghost. Everything was a reminder of the thing I couldn’t forget anyway. The lemon tree my parents gave me as an engagement gift right before my surgery had unceremoniously dropped its leaves over the winter–they do that–and I couldn’t shake the fear that I was killing the last tangible symbol of her love I would ever get. All of my clients suddenly turned out to have dead or dying mothers that they needed to talk about.

My work suffered–everybody noticed. My parents were often calling and texting me during the workday and I would grasp at whatever few minutes I had between appointments to talk to them, sob inconsolably on the floor of my office, or both. I no longer wanted to be alive whatsoever, but even stronger than that feeling was the belief that I absolutely could not die, accidentally or on purpose, without dooming my family for good. By then I was living only for other people–my family, my partners, my clients–and I was starting to fail every single one of them, noticeably and repeatedly. The more I failed, the more I hated myself, my life, and the world.

It was, in short, a complete fucking living nightmare.

You have to understand—I was never one of those people who wonder Why me? when they get sick. Totally reasonable reaction—just not mine. In some ways this is because I incorporate and adapt to new knowledge quickly, and I was immediately focused on survival.

But the other half of it has to do with the way in which having cancer stripped me bare. I discovered that all of that emotional baggage and maladaptation I thought I’d handled years ago were actually still there, dormant. As all of my learned coping skills and cognitive strategies were eroded away like layers of sediment, I found that there was no bedrock of self-love underneath, no protective sense of my own worth as a person.

And so I didn’t feel the need to wonder what I did to “deserve” getting cancer. I didn’t think I deserved it, but I also didn’t think I’d done anything to deserve a happy, healthy life, either. Honestly, getting cancer kind of made sense. On my worst days I really do hate myself enough to make renegade killer cells an apt (if heavy-handed) metaphor.

My mom’s illness was completely different. As the weeks leading up to the eventual beginning of her treatment wore on and on, I hated the world more and more, and wanted to live in it less and less. I wished an asteroid would hit and destroy it. I wanted nothing to do with a world in which something like that could happen to someone like her. I wanted nothing to do with a life without her in it.

As a patient, I had a dark source of comfort—this too shall pass. You either survive cancer or you die.

I survived. My illness taught me that I can overcome anything. My mom’s taught me that no matter what I overcome, the suffering it brings will never end.

And yet. With something approaching an actual working diagnosis, my mom started her treatment in late March. The treatment seemed to be effective. The tumors shrank. I found myself sometimes thinking about something other than her. Spring came, as it always does, and the seeds went into the ground, and my wondrous garden sprang up once again as if from nothing.

And, just like last year, the new life in my backyard brought life back into me, too.

I don’t know what will happen with her treatment, or the rest of her life. There are reasons for hope and there are reasons for despair. Which one will win out in my mind in any given moment is a coin flip. I still haven’t figured out why or how to live without her if she dies. When she dies, as that’s obviously going to happen eventually. That’s another one of those things I didn’t expect to be thinking about this much at my age.

I haven’t written about this for months, except for scribbled ranting in my journal, because I had nothing to say. I could find no meaning or narrative in it. With my own cancer I learned things, experienced things. I had things to say about fear and bodies and friendship and family and work and joy. It was awful but it was also in many ways profound.

This was nothing. I learned nothing, saw nothing. “What am I supposed to write about?” I remember asking my therapist. “There’s no ‘there’ there. I just don’t want my mom to die. I’m just miserable and terrified and grieving already about that. That’s literally it.”

“You should think about why this happened to you,” my mom’s first doctor said, after ordering CT scans. I have also thought about why this happened to me, to us, as has she. We got nothing.

When I lost the thread of my own story last year, even that became part of the story itself. It was a gap, but the gap spoke volumes. When my mom got sick, I wasn’t weaving the web anymore. I was a fly trapped in it.

So I made do with what I have, and made myself a little cocoon from the fibers.

Then, midway through her treatment, everything changed again. She finally got her genetic test results back. She has BRCA-1, the same genetic condition I have. Then I understood.

She was always going to get cancer. It has always been a near-certainty, since long before I was even born, since before she watched her own father survive cancer.

My dad called and told me, and asked me to be the one to tell her. I froze. Couldn’t do it. On the one hand, it was “good” news, of a sort–it was a medical explanation, and it increases her chances of survival because it makes certain additional treatments possible. On the other hand, I shuddered to think of anyone, let alone someone I love so much, going through the hell I went through. What do I say to someone about to go through what was my worst trauma?

I told my dad this. He said, “It won’t be anything like that. We have your experience to guide us.”

And that’s when everything clicked for me at last.

My mom, like me, was always going to end up in this situation. Statistically, it was much more likely that she would go through it first, and I would go second. But that’s not how it happened, thank god, because this way it was my body and sanity on the line, not hers. Because this way I was the one to be mistreated and traumatized like that, I was the one who learned what I learned, I was the one who had to figure out how to demand humane treatment and pain control, I was the one who realized that panic attacks interact uniquely with this particular kind of post-op pain, I was the one who lived to write about it, I was the one who made it my mission to learn how to talk so doctors will listen and to start to teach that to others.

Now none of that will happen to her, so help me god, because I will be for her what nobody was able to be for me.

And with that came the realization that if I had a choice—if I could’ve somehow chosen to be put through this first so that she may survive it with fewer psychological scars—I would’ve chosen this, because I would do absolutely anything to save her life and her happiness, even face down death myself.

Everyone hopes on some level to find some sort of ultimate meaning in the horrors they go through; my answer to that basically got handed to me. I went through it so she wouldn’t have to, so that I could one day walk right back through the fire I’d escaped, and lead her out with me.

Things became somehow easier after that. While there isn’t any sort of cosmic meaning or significance to all this, I don’t really need there to be. In the unanswerable question of her tragedy, I found an unquestionable answer I didn’t know I was looking for.

After that I did something I didn’t expect to do. It won’t seem like a big deal to anyone but me, but I know what it means.

What I did was I bought trees. Berry trees. Black currant, gooseberry, cornelian-cherry dogwood, lingonberry, hawthorn, fig, mulberry, and, of course, rosa rugosa, which produces those rosehips my mom so prizes.

For the first time I was willing to plant things that wouldn’t give fruit for at least a year if not more, and to trust that on the day they repay all of my digging, watering, fertilizing, pruning, and protecting for the first time, I will still be around, and I will still care. That one beautiful fall day, maybe one of the last, my mom will visit me, and she will steal rosehips from my bushes, telling me that I wouldn’t use them anyway, and her laughter will be strong enough to send the birds from the feeders and bushes, flocking up, up into the dying light.

So that’s where I was, last weekend, digging holes in the yard as the rising summer sun woke up and thawed me.

On the patio behind me, where I’d set it out after the last frost, my parents’ lemon tree was waking too, sending bursts of new smooth green leaves from its buds like offerings to the sun god it worships.

I finished my work, picked fresh herbs from the garden for my mom, threw my stuff in the car, and drove west to Dayton, where my family was waiting for me.


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Back Through the Fire
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Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[CN: Irreverent opinions about death]

With the sudden passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia this weekend, the Internet has filled up with sentiments about his death. Some people are cheering it, some are mourning it, and some are chastising the people who are cheering it because they find it inappropriate to be happy that someone is dead, regardless of who that person was or what they did.

Obviously, this is causing a lot of conflict, because the women, queer people, and other marginalized folks who are glad that Scalia’s no longer around to deny them civil rights don’t exactly appreciate being told they shouldn’t feel that way, and people who find it really inappropriate to “celebrate death” feel very uncomfortable.

Just to put this out there: I don’t feel any particular way about Scalia’s death. I think that it’ll have some interesting implications for the upcoming election, and I hope that this means that the Supreme Court will soon have a new justice who is liberal or at least moderate, but I don’t really feel anything. I didn’t celebrate his death. I didn’t mourn his death. I don’t have a lot of strong feelings about things that don’t impact me very very personally, and often I don’t even have any feelings about those things, and generally my writing and my activism is shaped by other processes besides my emotions. So. This is not an article about me and my feelings, and I’m not defending myself or my feelings here. I’m making an argument concerning ethics and I’m defending a broad group of people that I’m seeing get unfairly put down right now.

Death is never an easy subject to talk about no matter whose it is, and I think part of the problem is clashing social norms about responding to death. Some people are in the “never speak ill of the dead” camp; others are in the “you can criticize the actions of someone who has passed away but you shouldn’t be glad they’re gone” camp. The most controversial camp is the “I get to feel however the fuck I want about someone’s death and I get to say so on my Facebook page” camp.

I’m not much for relativism in general, but I think it’s worth noting that these different social norms exist and that they are not inevitable or universal. There is no intrinsic reason why saying mean things about someone who has died is wrong. You can claim that it’s bad because it hurts their surviving loved ones, but what if there’s no chance of them hearing those mean things? You can claim that it’s bad because saying mean things about people is just always bad, but then every single one of us is bad and there’s no point in calling the kettle black. You can claim that it’s bad because death itself is intrinsically bad, but the problem is that not everyone sees it that way either.

Personally, I think that life and death are both morally neutral. I think that human life in general does a lot of good and a lot of bad. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good in the world and a lot of bad, too. I think that individual lives can cause a lot of good for the other lives they touch, but they can also cause a lot of bad. For each person whose death is terribly mourned, there’s probably a person whose death brings relief to those they have abused or otherwise hurt.

As uncomfortable as it is for some people to acknowledge that some deaths come as a relief to those who knew the deceased, there is no one better than that person’s victims to judge the moral value of their lives. Even more uncomfortable to acknowledge is the fact that some deaths bring comfort to the dying themselves. Life is morally neutral; some lives are so full of pain and suffering that death feels like a net good and as horrible as that is for me to contemplate, who am I to invalidate that?

No one in the broad “do not rejoice at death” camp has yet given me a good argument for why rejoicing at death is ethically wrong. They say it makes them look down on the rejoicers, but if you look down on people for their feelings about their oppression, that says more about you than about them. They say it “brings out the worst in people,” with no specifics about what “the worst” is. (Really? Being happy that someone is dead is worse than systematically denying civil rights to millions of people?) They say that death is intrinsically bad so it’s intrinsically wrong to be happy about it, but again, these are not universal values. If you view death as intrinsically bad, that’s a good argument for you to do your best to avoid death and celebrate life. It’s not a good argument for other people to have different feelings.

My own ethical orientation makes it difficult for me to view an action that doesn’t do harm to anyone as unethical, and making someone annoyed or uncomfortable or even a little upset isn’t necessarily the same as doing harm to them. (If it were, it would be unethical for gay couples to hold hands in public places.) The “don’t rejoice at death” camp ends up making a circular argument: rejoicing at death is wrong because it upsets people and it upsets people because rejoicing at death is wrong.

Here someone often argues that Scalia’s family is in mourning and would be very upset at the things that some people are saying. That’s quite possible, although it seems highly unlikely that any of Scalia’s family members are spending this time browsing the social media feeds of random unknowns like my friends and me. (Also, many of us keep our feeds private.) The likelihood of Scalia’s loved ones stumbling on my friends’ Facebook pages seems so low that expecting them to tailor their feeds with this possibility in mind is pretty unreasonable.

I’ve also been hearing a lot of sentiments like, “Well, you get to feel however you feel about his death, but remember that he was also a human being who had people who loved him.” That’s certainly a nice thought; I always try to remember that people I strongly dislike or disagree with are human beings, and maybe that’s why I don’t actually feel happy about his death. (Again, I don’t feel sad about it either.) In general, I agree with the idea that it’s good to humanize people.

But it’s just another one of those vaguely positive and obvious statements that nobody seriously disagrees with. Of course it’s nice to remember that people are human beings, just as it’s generally nice to say “please” and “thank you” and to hold doors for people carrying large objects and to learn about the views of people who disagree with you and to stop and let a car out even when you have right of way because otherwise they’d be waiting to make their turn forever and that would suck for them. It’s just that these things are not always the most important thing for you to do in that moment, and they’re not always accessible for everyone to do, and (I would argue) they’re not ethical imperatives, just nice things to try to do as much as you can.

Notably, Scalia belongs to a category of human being that is least in need of humanizing, because people like Scalia are the least dehumanized people. Unlike those most impacted by his jurisprudence, Scalia has never been dehumanized on the basis of his race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, or other category of privilege or oppression. So, sure, humanize Scalia, but all these condescending exhortations for others to do so sound a little #AllLivesMatter-y to me, especially when directed at those most directly harmed by Scalia himself.

Whenever I keep seeing something described as “crass,” “in poor taste,” “inappropriate,” and so on, I always get curious about what’s really going on, because these phrases actually say very little except “a critical mass of people disapproves of this; it’s not just me.” But what do they actually disapprove of, and why?

Most of the types of people who would appear in my social media feeds don’t actually believe that it’s wrong to have certain emotions, but many of them think it’s wrong to express those emotions at certain times (or ever). In this case, a private glee at Scalia’s death might seem petty to them, but it’s expressing the glee publicly (or semi-publicly, as Facebook often is) that’s really “crass” and “in poor taste.”

Unable to produce an argument for why being glad that someone who did terrible, terrible harm has died is actually harmful, they resort to phrases like “celebrating death” that are intended to make the targets of their ire look either like callous, spiteful children or else some sort of Satanic cult. But one person’s “celebrating death” is another person’s “feeling relieved or ecstatic that someone who has done them terrible harm can no longer do so.” And sure, if I got to choose, I’d have chosen for Scalia to retire rather than die, but nobody asked me.

I’m sure there’s a lot of personal satisfaction in taking the perceived high road and deciding that, even though you belong to a group of people harmed by Antonin Scalia, you personally will not celebrate his death and will mourn it (or be neutral towards it) instead. But I’m uncomfortable with any ethical system that’s based on having or not having–or expressing or not expressing–certain emotions. The only place I see that leading is lots of shaming yourself and policing others for automatic brain things that are mostly outside of our immediate control (and for wanting to share some of those automatic brain things with other people).

I also wish that rather than rushing to condemn perceived “crassness” or “poor taste,” folks would cultivate some curiosity about where these strong emotions are coming from.

~~~

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Antonin Scalia and the Ethics of "Celebrating Death"

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It's Like To Consider Suicide

[Content note: depression and suicide]

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I wrote this post for it a year ago, and I decided to repost it today because I still think people should read it and I doubt I could write another one that’s better.

Somebody, somewhere in the world, kills themselves every 40 seconds.

Set a timer on your phone or watch for 40 seconds. When it beeps, another precious, beloved life is gone.

Yesterday, September 10, was World Suicide Prevention Day. Although suicide prevention entails important things like improving mental health screening and treatment, increasing access to mental health services, and decreasing the stigma of admitting and treating mental health problems, I think there’s another part that we usually miss when we talk about prevention. And that part is understanding what being suicidal is really like.

Those who kill themselves (or wish to do so) are not selfish.

They are not weak.

They are not simply having a bad day.

All of these tropes about suicide, and many others, are wrong.

I can only speak for myself, not for any of the other millions of people who have struggled with this most ultimate of dilemmas. But for me, at least, here’s how it was.

 

I don’t think I ever wanted to be dead.

I have, however, wanted not to be alive.

Why? Because living sucked, because I hated myself, because everyone else must surely hate me too, because I was a burden, because I was going to be alone forever, because I was like an alien that was accidentally born on the wrong planet, to the wrong species, in the wrong society. Killing myself would be like correcting a cosmic error.

There were many ways I dreamed about it happening. Pills of some sort would’ve been my first choice, although I was absolutely terrified of what would happen to my body if they failed to kill me. (Go figure, I was terrified not of dying, but of failing to die.)

But I wanted to be able to take the pills and lie down somewhere and just curl up until I stopped feeling forever.

Sometimes I also thought about bleeding to death by slashing my wrists or something. But I despise pain above all else, and also, poetic as it would be, the thought of someone I love finding me that way made my guts churn. Also, could I actually do it? Could I actually take a knife and slice open my own skin?

I doubted it.

Jumping off of a building occurred to me a lot, especially at the very beginning of my love affair with suicidal ideation. That was back when I was studying journalism, panicking constantly, and feeling just about ready to do anything to escape. Was the journalism building high enough? If not, what would be?

And then there were the trains. Living in Chicago, you take them a lot. Every time I stood on the El or Metra platform as a train rolled in, I thought about it. Not seriously, as I’d made no plans and written no note, but the thought did occur. The rails screeched, and gust swept into my coat and rattled my bones. How I hated standing on the platform, forced to imagine my own death graphically every time a train rolled in.

Recently, when I was already better, I was waiting on the platform for the Metra. A train was coming. It turned out to be an express train that barreled through the station without stopping. The blur, the clamor, the sudden slap of wind–I was left shaken for several minutes after it passed, imagining what that could’ve done to my body.

Strangely, I never even considered guns, although that is what a character in my abandoned novel chose to use.

I composed many different suicide notes in my mind. Some were lengthy and elaborate, with separate sections for each person I wanted to reckon with before I died. I used to keep secrets and grudges for years, and I wanted everyone to know the truth in the end. (These days, I try to make sure that if I suddenly die today, little will have been left unsaid.)

Other notes were simple. They contained nothing more than a quote or a song lyric. Often they included an apology to my family. I thought about writing it in Russian, not English, as though that would make it any better for them.

I also thought about not leaving a note, but something about that made me very sad. What if they never knew? But might that not be better?

And I could not stop listening to that OK Go song, “Return“:

You were supposed to grow old.

You were supposed to grow old.  

Reckless, unfrightened, and old,

You were supposed to grow old.

I never made a firm plan to kill myself, I never attempted to kill myself, and, obviously, I never did kill myself. The only reason, I think, was because I cared more about my family’s wants and needs than I did about my own. As much as I thought I needed to stop living, they needed me to continue living, and so I did.

Is this “normal”? Do others talk themselves out of suicide this way? I have no idea. This isn’t really something I talk about over beers with friends.

I was lucky, when it comes down to it. Lucky to have a family I love so fiercely that that love overpowered my hatred for life.

Death and I, we have an awkward but strangely comfortable relationship now. If I don’t bother with her, she doesn’t bother with me. I don’t fear death itself very much, although the idea of just not existing terrifies and baffles me, just like the idea of time travel or parallel universes or the butterfly effect.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve traveled to the edge of the known world, teetered on that edge, and then shrugged my shoulders and returned. I can’t really tell you exactly what I saw there, but I will say that there is a thick glass wall now between me and those who haven’t made that journey.

I say to a dear friend as I write this, “I’m thoroughly desensitized to the thought of myself dying.”

“I’m not,” she says. “You should stay here and grow crotchety and gray. Perhaps even collect spiderwebs.”

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

For better or worse, I will live with what I saw at the edge of the known world until I die what I hope will be a natural death.

[repost] At The Edge Of The Known World: What It's Like To Consider Suicide

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death

I’ve been reading Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great because, having been an atheist for a long time and through no particular effort of my own or anyone else’s, it’s important for me to understand what the arguments against religion actually are. (Well, and also, that book is hilarious.)

Reading Hitchens’ description and critique of Pascal’s Wager brought back some memories from my childhood, and I realized that as a kid, I actually used a sort of Pascal’s Wager without knowing what it was or how notorious it is.

In a nutshell, Pascal’s Wager states that it’s “better safe than sorry” to believe in god. If you believe in god but he turns out not to exist, you’ve (supposedly) lost nothing*. But if you don’t believe in god and he turns out to exist, then you get to burn in hell for all eternity. Yay!

For a significant amount of my childhood–I don’t remember when it started or ended–I did believe in god. I don’t know exactly why, except that I thought it was part of being Jewish. In addition, I was terrified of hell, of my parents dying and going to hell–in short, of what would happen to me if I didn’t believe.

Here’s the interesting thing, though: my parents never taught me about hell. I did not attend a religious school or Sunday school (until much later, and even then we only discussed Jewish history and ethics). My parents did nothing to encourage my religious beliefs, though they did encourage my ethnic Jewish identity. I attended the occasional prayer service, but the rabbis were more concerned with making jokes and encouraging friendships than teaching us to fear the torment of hell.

Rather, my view of hell and my resulting fear of it probably came from the Christian culture in which I grew up. As I did with Christmas, I kind of passively absorbed all the stuff I heard about hell from classmates, friends, and pop culture. I was also always interested in art and literature, which are both brimming with biblical allusions. A large chunk of my knowledge of Christianity comes from them. I accepted all the propaganda about “Judeochristian ethics” or “Abrahamic traditions” and assumed that the Christian and Jewish views of death and the afterlife must be identical.

Ultimately I discarded all religious or “spiritual” conceptions of the afterlife (and I’ve run through many) and decided that when you die your consciousness dies too. But I guess I’ll see when I get there.

As others have already pointed out, the idea that atheists have nothing worthwhile to contribute about death is insulting and false. Yes, everything we say about it is based on the premise that there is no life after death, so if that concept is completely reprehensible to you, I suppose you don’t have much of a reason to listen to us.

Otherwise, though, I agree with Susan Jacoby that atheists should speak out about their views, including their views on death. Greta Christina has already done so beautifully. But I will take it one step further and say that parents should help their children understand and deal with death rather than trying to shield them from that reality.

You should talk to your kids about death because if you don’t, they’ll learn about it anyway. Maybe they’ll be lucky and learn something helpful and reassuring, but more likely they’ll pick up whatever poisonous and disempowering ideology their surrounding culture supplies to them.

This doesn’t just apply to atheists, by the way. I know plenty of religious people whose parents told them that they don’t believe in hell, which I believe is the ethical thing to do. If an adult wishes to attend religious services and be informed that they will suffer forever after death if they fail to follow a certain set of rules, that’s their choice. But teaching that to a child is cruel.

I’ll be honest–I don’t know how to talk to kids about death. I’m not (yet) a parent, and I won’t condescend to you by providing concrete child-rearing advice. But I think this is worth thinking deeply about and I’ll keep doing so. This is a post about “why”; someone else will have to supply the “how,” if they haven’t already.

I do know, both from my personal experience and my research, that shielding children from dangerous or “scary” ideas and realities–death, drugs, sex, illness–doesn’t work. They learn anyway. And, chances are, they’ll learn from similarly misinformed and probably insensitive peers, or from television, or other sources that aren’t going to be nearly as compassionate and experienced as their parents hopefully are.

So talk to your kids about death.

~~~

*I will include a caveat that, in my opinion, Pascal was wrong that you’d lose nothing by believing in a god that turns out not to exist. What you lose is the ability to create your own life, relationships, and moral code as you see fit. That, I think, is a pretty big loss.

Why You Should Talk To Your Kids About Death