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For This Child, on the Subject of Death

Here is a memory.

I am one of the early arrivals in the school pickup line on a wintry afternoon late in 2019. The tiny parking lot is bounded by a gray concrete wall built against a hill ahead, the school building to my left, and a sere upward slope of brittle grass on my right. Aside from the silhouetted movements of the other drivers, nothing moves in my monochromatic surroundings; I turn the engine off and let my mind wander.

Every once in a while our daughters step up onto a new but invisible stage of growth and understanding. Lately it has been the subject of death, and our six-year-old in particular has been absorbing it by degrees, her progress peeking through in statements she utters as we run errands or take our walks. “I want to live in the new heaven and earth, but I wish we didn’t have to die.” “Do souls ever die?” “I don’t want you to die, Mommy.”

I don’t let on nearly as much, but I am working through the notion of death again too, as I’ve had to do through my own developmental stages: first as a newlywed, then as an adult in her thirties, and most recently as the mother of two children. Death never seemed this appalling to my twenty-year-old eyes. I was ready to cast off and see the world then, and worried more over my parents’ worry than myself. But I am connected to many more ties of affection and love today, and every one of them makes the threat of loss more painful, though every one of them is also worth the pain of possible severance.

I turn the key to check the car clock, then check my pulse. Medical issues have given me a few practice rounds in letting go. Is this something that can be ignored? What is the cost if I try? What if I make the wrong decision? Is this a new normal? Not too long ago, on a difficult day when mental and physical pain blended in a disquieting haze, a question stood out so clearly that it was almost audible: “Can you be brave?”

I can’t, I whispered instantly, in a tone identical to our six-year-old’s voice when she is in despair. But even before I finished uttering the words I remembered that, all protests and resistance notwithstanding, this selfsame daughter often gathers her courage to do exactly what needs to be done. On her first day at this weekly homeschool program, she gripped my hand with all her might as we walked into the classroom. She clung to me for a second, asking softly where I was going afterwards, but then she went to sit down beside the other children and let her daddy and I wave goodbye from the door.

I am slower, but I’m learning. If I must carry my current cross, then—as C. S. Lewis wrote—“surely you need not have fear as well?” His attitude has been a strengthening, almost jovial tonic to me in a culture that continually seems surprised that human beings should suffer or die. Of the death that looms over our awareness like a wall closing in with erratic speed, he says:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hairshirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? You have long attempted (and none of us does more) a Christian life. Your sins are confessed and absolved. Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. —C. S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady

For a few years now, the light of a long-awaited home has been growing on the horizon behind the fact of my mortality. I know the timing and the manner of my own eventual end are not up to me, though it’s taken me a long time to admit it. I’ve given up whatever control I attempted to have on the matter. It’s a relinquishment I’ve been able to make for the same reason, I believe, that Tolkien chose to give us the image of a “grey rain-curtain” rolling back, and Lewis the image of a great waterfall coursing upward at the world’s end: more and more, it’s becoming possible to approach death and see straight through it.

A few weeks before my father-in-law died, I took my older daughter to a coffee shop. In between a stream of conversation topics, we watched other customers order croissants and mochas, and we listened to the swoop of the revolving door as they left. Between the whirring noises at the barista’s counter, we could hear the green trees outside rustling in the summer wind. “Do you know what I’ve been thinking lately?” I said gently, half to myself and half to my thoughtful companion. “I’ve been thinking that because of Jesus, death is not something you and I have to fear as we might have before accepting his rescue. We know what lies beyond it, so death itself is just a door—and even though for some it might be as simple as a glass door and for others it might look more like an iron portcullis—in the end, it is only a door, and not something that can ever swallow us up anymore. When we walk through it, we’ll be home.” I looked at her over the rim of my tea mug and saw that she understood.

But I don’t yet know how to phrase this to my smaller girl, who is asking not simply about death, I think, but also how one can approach the grief of the separations caused by death without despair. Is there a human, even fully grown, who doesn’t struggle with object permanence? What explanations or relatable images can I introduce to this particular child about the death—to begin with—of believers? What might give her a portion of the peace that I’ve gained?

The clock hits the hour, and the tan metal door opens. A single stream of vibrant little faces and bouncing backpacks begins to trickle out. All of the parents look up from their phones and books at the same time, but none of us moves; we know each class will troop out past the automobiles and file into the gym, where they’ll be sorted into the right order to be picked up.

More and more, it’s becoming possible to approach death and see straight through it. Amy Baik Lee

I spot my little one in the second group, right as she sees me. “Mommy!” She waves with a brightness that hasn’t ebbed in five months. How glad I am that, though shy, she has found a place of her own here. One morning a week, as I wave goodbye to the departing car, I pray that she and her sister and their father will abide in Him and He in them — that they will know His love deeply and be the bearers of it to others. At home this afternoon she’ll tell us about her day: a morning and afternoon filled with riveting tales that she is excited to tell because, out of all the family, she was the only one to witness them. She’ll describe the beanbag game she played with her friends at recess. We’ll learn how much she ate of the mac-and-cheese-and-broccoli she looks forward to every week. She might even share a few lines of the the new song she learned in music class. And as she talks, I’ll give silent thanks again for how her Shepherd has walked with her—for her growth in grace, by grace—and for the good work he has prepared for her to do. Even on the days she isn’t aware of it, even if she should someday lose sight of it, her life is a story of his love.

I smile as I watch her walk with a cheerful spring in each step, and I wave back. “See you soon, Mommy!” she calls.

See you very soon, sweetheart.

The gym door shuts behind her class. I start the car again as the line begins to move.

And I know.

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