How to Raise an Existential Daughter

I hear my daughter crying and think it might be a game. “Are you okay?” I ask outside her closed bedroom door.

“Yes.”

“Are you crying or playing?”

“Crying.”

“Can I have a hug?”

“Yes.”

I open the door and she sits up in bed, still sniffling. I wrap my arms around her. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Yes.”

Tomorrow is the first day of school after winter break, and I’m worried that I’m about to learn something horrible about the fifth grade. “I really hate the thought of death.”

Of course, I realize. It’s this. She’s been this way since she was four, and so have I. Existential angst is genetic. “Me too,” I say. “It’s very scary to think about, but it’s one of those things that’s scarier when you’re thinking about it than when it actually happens. When it happens, it will be like before you were born, and you weren’t upset then.” She laughs a little, and I silently thank Mark Twain.

“Another thing that makes me feel better about it,” I say, drawing on my own wisdom now, “is that if you live for a long time, death won’t be so scary once you’re old. You know how you hate bedtime now?” She nods. “Well, I hated bedtime when I was a kid too. Adults used to tell me that once I was grown up, I would love bedtime, I would want to go to bed. I thought they were crazy! I couldn’t imagine that, but it’s true. Now I can’t wait to go to sleep, and I wish bedtime were even earlier than it is.” Her laugh is short, incredulous. “So I think death might be like that. Right now I hate the idea of it. I don’t want it to happen. But when I’m old, and I’m tired because I’ve had such a long wonderful life doing lots of things that I wanted to do, maybe death will seem like a good idea, the way bedtime sounds like such a great idea to me now, even though I never wanted to go to sleep when I was a kid.”

She is calm now, absorbing these farfetched descriptions of adulthood. Then I remember something I learned, not from a great American writer, but from a YouTube video by a science educator named Hank Green. “You know what Hank says? He says that death is a gift.” I have to pause here, because she falls back into bed, laughing hysterically at this absurd statement. “He says it’s a gift because the only reason we can die is that we are alive in the first place, and it is almost impossibly unlikely that we are alive.” She has seen enough nature documentaries to grasp the truth of this, and she is still laughing.