One night a few weeks ago, my six-year-old son David came down from bed and put his head on my shoulder.
A tear in his eye, he said mournfully, “Dad, I just can’t believe it’s all going to end.”
At school a few days earlier, a buddy had told him – with apparent relish – that one day in the future our sun would explode and incinerate the planet and everyone on it.
I told David this was not true. What his friend described was a supernova, an explosion that marks the dramatic end for some stars, but not our sun. The single factor that decides whether a star will explode at the end of its life is mass. And our sun would need to be at least four times heavier to die in that kind of cataclysmic explosion.
“So the sun is not going to destroy the earth?” he asked, looking up hopefully.
Here I was tempted to fudge a bit. (After all, it was bedtime.) But I’ve always believed it’s better to teach kids to face unpleasant realities rather than ignore or deny them.
I told him that scientists believe that in four or five billion years, the sun will exhaust its fuel – its supply of hydrogen – and bloat into a red giant. As the sun expands, its heat will boil away the oceans and the earth will become molten again.
He looked a bit downcast at this information.
“But the good part,” I added, “is that this won’t happen for billions of years, long after you and everyone you know are gone. By then, it is possible that human beings will have developed the technology to venture out to other planets orbiting different stars. Our descendants may actually flourish in some other part of the galaxy.”
He shrugged off my optimistic tone. When you’re in second grade, the idea that you and everyone you know will some day be dead – even if its billions of years from now – doesn’t exactly rouse your spirits. (David still grapples with the concept of “next week.”)
This led us to a second and more important discussion.
I told David that he is young and strong and likely to live a long, long time, longer than he can imagine. But I also reminded him that everything that lives eventually dies. That’s just the way things are.
It’s sad to contemplate leaving this world or losing someone we love. But at some point – if we are fortunate enough to live that long – we become old and frail. Life loses its quality. Death becomes a blessing.
It doesn’t always feel that way for us, the survivors who grieve our losses deeply. But death is part of the tapestry of life. We couldn’t exist without it. I often tell David, for instance, that everything on his plate was once alive: the fruit, the vegetables, the meat, even the pasta (in a roundabout way). He should be thankful. If they didn’t die, he couldn’t live.
Without the death of plants and animals – and our ancestors – there wouldn’t be room for us. The earth can’t support limitless populations. We all struggle to survive. But, eventually, the old must leave to make room for the new.
Science writer Connie Barlow and her husband Reverend Michael Dowd help kids deal with death and dying as a natural process. She sometimes asks a group of children, “Do any of you have a grandparent who has already become an ancestor?” Instead of hesitating, the kids eagerly raise their hands. At one church, a boy proudly proclaimed, “My grandma became an ancestor on January 26, 2004!”
Without death, we couldn’t honor those who came before us. We couldn’t set important goals. We couldn’t prioritize our lives. Time would not be precious.
Death separates the meaningful from the trivial. (Just ask someone with a cancer diagnosis how important next week’s big budget meeting is.) It’s shocking how often it takes the death of someone we know to knock us out of our complacency and make us take stock of what really matters.
In the end, death makes everything possible. Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil. Without the death of ancient forests and glaciers, there would be no northern lakes. Without the death of dinosaurs, there would be no humans. Without the death of stars – the event that forges the heavy elements that make up you and everything around you – there would be no planets and no life.
As tragic as death can be, especially when it comes unexpectedly, it orders our lives and gives them meaning. Death reminds us that life is to be fully and exuberantly lived, and then graciously and gratefully given up.
I think David is getting it. When his sister Hannah came home from school one day and found Misty, her pet hamster, dead, David put his arm around her and said, “I’m sorry, Hannah.” Then turning philosophical he added, “But, you know Hannah, dying is just part of living.”
And, indeed, it is.
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