By Eric Greenleaf Ph.D.
& Angela Wu MFT
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 22 seconds.
Dear Dr. Greenleaf,
This is Angela from your class at MRI. I have a situation at home and I wanted to write to you because I sense you may be able to help me deal with it by using a story for the solution.
This morning my 3 ½-year-old son walked quietly into my room with his favorite stuffed pink pig and comforting purple blanket. Instead of his normal singing, shouting, and jumping in my bed, he looked tired and sad and crawled under my blanket to cuddle with me. I asked him, “Did you have a good night’s sleep?” He was solemn and I saw the thousand-mile distant stare in his big brown eyes. He had that stare when he was in a trance.
After a while, he turned to me, and I saw tears running down his cheeks. I kissed him and dried his tears.
He looked at me and said, “Mommy, I want (you) to read books (to me) about death. I do not understand death.”
I asked him, “What do you know about death?”
“Mommy, are you going to be old?”
“Yes, I will be old,” I said. “We all grow up and grow old, and it’s fun to grow up.” “When I grow up, then you will be old and die?” he asked.
“When you grow up, I will still be here to love you,” I replied.
“Mommy, I do not want you to be old, so I won’t grow up and you can always take care of me.”
“Bobby, I will always love you and take care of you whenever you need,” I said. No matter how big we are, we always need people to take care of us at times. We all take care of each other.”
“But Mommy, I don’t want you to die, so I won’t grow up.”
“Bobby, it is so much fun to grow up. You can drive cars (he loves cars), and you can go out at night (he likes to play outside at night). And, I am still here to love you,” I told him.
Dr. Greenleaf, I cannot let this conversation with my son continue, as I am afraid I will be trapped with him on the topic of death. I try to distract him with toys and reading books, but what’s next? Is he going to need a story about death so he can feel happy about growing up?
I called Angela and told her that I didn’t know what she should say to her son, but I do know what I told my grandson when he was about the same age:
“Grandpa, you’re old!” “Yes, I am.”
“And you’re going to die.”
“Yes, I am. But I intend to live for a long time. I want to live until I’m 100 years old.”
Dear Dr. Eric,
Thank you for calling. The story of you and your grandson is very touching and loving, especially when it was told in your soothing voice.
Bobby and I have had more conversations about death and growing up, and he’s decided that if he doesn’t grow up, then I won’t die. He has not wanted to eat or sleep by himself.
“Mommy, feed me, I am a baby.” “Mommy, hold me. Hold me like a baby.”
“Mommy, I just want to be your little boy. I don’t want to be bigger than you.”
“Of course you are always my little boy, and I always love you,” I told him.
Last night at bedtime, I adopted your story of living to the age of 100, and then we started to count to 100.
“How big is 100?” Bobby asked. “Very big number…let’s count,” I said.
“One, two, three,” he counted with enthusiasm. He is proud that he can now count to 30.
“There are many more numbers after 30; let’s count to 100,” I said.
So he followed me, counting, and finally, he realized that 100 is a very big number. It took him forever to count, and before he could finish, he fell asleep.
This morning, Bobby came to my bed.
“Mommy, I am very happy!” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because you love me,” he said.
Take care, Angela
What a beautiful outcome for you and your son. I am so grateful that you called and shared your story with me. Waiting while Bobby found his own solution with the help of stories and conversation with you was just right.
Commentary by John M. Dyckman, Ph.D.
It’s pleasing to offer comments; the explanation is harder, and, as anyone who has ever tried to “explain” a joke knows, not so useful. A good story, like a good joke, draws power from creative ambiguity and is a pleasing departure from the ordinary or the expected. It touches the part of us we call “the unconscious”.
The first story the loving mother tells her son to reassure him does not work. In the childʼs view, the logic is:
If I don’t grow up, then mom will not be old; and if mom is not old, she will not die. No appeal to maternal love, or to the competencies that come with growing up is successful for the mother in calming her son’s fears. So much for attempts to “correct” emotional logic.
Eric’s story is a parallel musing. He allies with the mother in an adult reaction to a child’s discovery of the connection between aging and death. Eric blurs the line between intention (“I intend to live a long time…until I’m 100 years old”) and reality–that he, or any parent, will live to the age of 100. This very confusion of desire and outcome is one of the typical characteristics of thought of 3 to 5-year-olds (see Fraiberg’s The Magic Years, 1959).
The mother brilliantly uses her son’s pride in his ability to count to get him to count to 100–which is such a high number that he is happily asleep long before he can get there. He awakes secure in his mother’s love, and if we are to explain, with a new syllogism: One-hundred is old; mom is not 100, so I can grow up. But it would be a mistake to point this out to him or to do more than enjoy the moment of happiness.
We all tell stories, and it is important to note that some stories have more satisfactory outcomes than others. People enjoy each other’s stories, especially when they feel that their own story has been accepted. Rather than challenging the logic of a story, we can find a way to utilize its elements in some new and hopeful combination.