"When my child said that, I heard what she was really saying: 'What will happen to me if mommy dies?'" says Bill Liao, serial Internet entrepreneur, philanthropist and one of the smartest, wisest and most grounded people I know.
Liao goes on to explain, "When a child asks that question, they are feeling how deeply dependent they are on their mom and how unfathomably awful, and maybe ever unsurvivable, life would be without her."
Liao was sitting on his daughter's bed, listening to her fears at 2 a.m. and trying desperately to think on his feet while he answered not just her question, but her need.
Here are the steps he took to help that child go from unfathomable to survivable and beyond.
1. As a lifelong seeker of understanding, Liao knew that perceptions and anticipated fears were nearly always much worse than actual reality. He realized that just because she was deeply afraid, and her fear felt real to her, didn't mean she was in real danger. Certainly the death and loss of a parent is tremendously agonizing, but it really doesn't mean that you can't go on, even if you're afraid you won't be able to. He also realized a concrete example was needed, as anything theoretical would be lost in the fear rather than being reassuring.2. He recalled what he had felt after the recent loss of a close family relative. And that included:
- Initially deep grief.
- Crying and realizing that "tears are God's way of helping transport someone who has died and left your life into your heart, where they live forever."
- Profound sadness as you feel that person missing from your life, initially very deeply, but later on less frequently, and still later on intermittently.
- After a bit more time passes you learn that it comes down to "living with life never being the same again," but realizing that doesn't mean you won't be able laugh, love and have a long happy life.
3. He next realized it is less important what you tell children, but what you enable them to tell you, so that you don't project your mis-perceived fears onto them.
In this case, it really was about her worrying about what would happen to her and what would happen if and after her mom died. Liao's laying out the above steps in a wise, calm, reassuring and loving way was just what was needed.
Liao asked his daughter "Do remember how mommy felt when her dad died? She was very sad for two whole weeks wasn't she?"
"Uh huh," came the response.
"Then mommy started to feel a bit better and was only sad some of the time, right?"
A slow, pondering "yeah" came back.
"Now mommy is only sad now and then about papa, right?"
"So that's what it will probably be like for you if it happens, and you will have lots of good things to remember as well as some sadness. After all, you are not sad all the time now papa is gone, are you?"
"No. I loved Papa."
Liao was greatly relieved and a good nights' sleep was had by all.
Drink in more of Bill Liao's wisdom at: Stone Soup Way
Follow Mark Goulston, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/markgoulston