No parent wants to think of what will happen to their children if the unthinkable happens and the parents die. Please forgive the cold opener. A day after the Amtrak train derailed in my hometown of Philadelphia last month, killing 8 people and critically injuring many, my husband and I each sat safely in our respective offices, on our separate phones, talking to a lawyer about our wills. We hadn’t updated our wills in a while—I was guessing it was 5 or so years ago. It had been keeping me up at night for months. Now that we were finally getting to it, the lawyer reminded us that it was actually 12 years ago the last time we spoke, our daughter who was about to graduate from college was then 10 years old, and our now rising high-schooler merely 2. I guess time had gotten away from us.
So there we sat listening to the questions and scenarios. “So if your husband dies first,” the lawyer says, and says over and over again, doing exactly what her job is, and exactly what we didn’t want to hear. “If your husband dies first, who do you want to name as guardian? Think about where the children are living and how feasible it is for someone who lives out of town.” And, as if that weren’t hard enough to hear, she went on to pursue the next level of preparedness: “In the event that, God-forbid, you both die in a crash tomorrow…” I find myself needing the question repeated—as much as I didn’t want to hear it at all—my mind returning to the tragic stories of the Amtrak crash victims.
I go in and out of waves of emotion, alternating with waves of the practical as if we are talking about carpooling logistics and then I catch myself and remember the reasons why we are talking about this. My sense of competency and control crumbles. Into the wave we go again. Even in separate offices, I know my husband is falling too. The possibility of death felt too close, even though it wasn’t happening. Feelings do that.
I am an anxiety therapist, I tell the lawyer, trying to create some levity—wanting her somehow to acknowledge the fact that this is so hard—or really just to buy myself some time so she will stop asking questions for a second. I am trying to catch my breath, steady myself and return in my mind to a world that is familiar and stable, and has nothing to do with death. I talk to people all day about what to do when their minds are hijacked by terrible scenarios, I explain to the lawyer. As if summoning my experience or expertise will rescue me. Meanwhile the sick feeling that my patients get in the pit of their stomach has landed in mine.
No, no parent wants to think about these things, but we all have to. And actually there’s something important that can come out of this.
Though we may feel unprepared (no matter how many years we’ve been parenting, or how many degrees we have after our names) thinking about these unthinkables is parenting too. It’s the part that feels too hard to bear, but it’s parenting that we can get better at.
For the sake of our children we need to pull away from the imaginary train wrecks and car crashes and cancer diagnoses that race through our minds, wake us from sleep at 3 a.m., and come back to the present. Where those things aren’t happening. And then we need to show our children how to do the same. We need to lead the way for our children in what to do with the unthinkable. To learn to think twice. Fear comes first and it’s the worst, but then we need to go back in with the facts: this is important, but it’s not happening to us now.
Because we are here now. Who better to illuminate these dark spaces for our children than us? Who better to show our children the passage back into the light?
We may think that we can’t guide our children because of our own fear—of not being around to guide them. But by practicing this stepping in and out of the darkness, going back and forth over that firm line of reality to catastrophe, and back again to reality, we can then teach our children the anxiety-buffering understanding that vulnerability challenges us, but doesn’t leave us helpless. If we can’t predict everything, that doesn’t mean we can’t know anything. Although worry plants these ideas in our minds, we can choose whether or not we live in fear. And when we are at our best in life, it is because we have chosen not to. We can say yes, these things are sad, and yes these sad things are possible, but we can decide how long we elaborate these scenarios that exist—however vividly—in our imaginations, that incapacitate us, or conversely, we can decide how quickly we close the book on worry and open our eyes to what is actually happening in our lives.
My husband and I end the call with the lawyer with a list of questions she wants us to get back to her on. A thick fog in our heads prevents us from making decisions at the time. We will go to the dark places, we will make our decisions, and then we will come back to the light. In these moments in the wake of someone else’s tragedy—and there is no shortage every week —we the spared, the separate, can teach our children compassion for those who suffer. And take the opportunity to practice resilience: the limberness of heart and mind to go into the unthinkable and then resolutely come back to ourselves.
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2015; A version of this was previously published on Newsworks.org.