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How I first experienced the idea of death

When I was 10 years old, I suddenly realised I would die. How my mum addressed the issue had a profound impact on my adult personality.

Photo of Chiara Pineschi
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I clearly remember the day I realised I would die. I was 10 years old, it was night and I was lying in my bed without being able to fall asleep. My dad's aunt, who was living in our same home but in a distinct apartment right below us, had long been dying. She had a very aggressive tumour with many metastases, and everybody knew she was going to die sooner than later. The issue though was absolutely not addressed with us children (my sisters and me), thus the idea of death was very much wrapped up in a sinister and mysterious aura I didn't understand. I knew if she died I would have never seen her again, but hadn't yet made the connection between her and me. Then that night I was wide awake and realisation hit me: if my dad's aunt was going to die, we wouldn't have seen her anymore. And the same was supposed to happen to me at some point in time. It was like a cold shower. I panicked and started crying and just wanted to block the idea out of my mind. I went to my parents' bed and my mum didn't really comfort me. She just told me that death was part of life and it was supposed to happen. My mum has always been very laconic and hard. That didn't make me feel better at all. It was very late, it was all dark, I remained in my parents' bed and laid down with them, but could not stop crying and ended up sleeping just when I was exhausted from it. The issue wasn't readdressed in any way the following days. I felt it as a tabu, about which I could talk just in the middle of the night, not really when everybody was present and alert. My enormous fear was there still, but all my efforts aimed at just blocking it out. I stopped reflecting upon it. I just didn't think about it anymore. When my aunt died, I didn't feel anything at all. I didn't even feel sad. I just remember the noises in the house and relatives coming and going and a kind of strange excitement about other small cousins coming and playing with me. That was part of my dealing with death: forgetting. I think many of my insecurities about "having everything", seizing every opportunity, putting the greatest possible effort into what I do are strongly related to this irrational fear of the oblivion, born when I was a child.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

I think there is a strong need to address the issue of dying with children. Death is indeed something everyone has to come to terms with, and not just in the period before its happening, or when the occasion comes up. Having - if possible - a serene/calm kind of relationship with passing might positively affect the approach children have to death and life later in life.

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Photo of Nancy Shapiro Rapport

Chiara, I couldn't agree with you more. Our childhood experiences shape our responses as adults. I'm sorry for your experience, and I am moved by your ability to recognize it, name it, and shift it. In my work with middle school children, I have companioned many through experiencing death...of a classmate, of a parent, of a teacher...more times than I'd like to count. There are many beautifully-written children's stories and resources available for supporting children through a loss. And yes, having a relationship with the concept of death prior to having an actual experience with loss would go a long way in normalizing it. And not just for children. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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