As my due date draws nearer, my toddler and preschooler keep me hopping, and I continue to focus daily on writing Wills and discussing funeral wishes as part of my clients’ estate plans, is it really any surprise that I keep hearing the theme song from Disney’s “The Lion King” in my head? It is truly the great circle of life – we are all born, we live our lives, and we will all eventually die. There could be frightening parts of all of those stages if we allow it. I choose instead to approach them all as bravely as possible in the face of so many unknowns, appreciating the universal nature of each stage, and preparing as best I can.
There are things we can, and most of us do, to prepare for childbirth. I’m reading Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth in preparation for my third experience with labor and delivery. And last night when I remarked to my husband that the Braxton-Hicks contractions were starting in earnest, we looked at each other and suddenly agreed, as Rafiki from the Lion King would say, “it is time” to start pulling the newborn clothes out of the closet, buying some tiny diapers, and packing a hospital bag. It doesn’t mean that the minute the diapers are stocked or my bag is packed that I will go into labor immediately. (That certainly didn’t work when my second was a week late at the end of a very hot August almost 3 years ago!) It’s just time to do some planning because this belly baby is coming sometime in the next 40 days or so and if we invest the time, money, energy and effort now, it will be easier and less stressful for all of us whenever the baby does come.
If you think about it, we spend our lives planning – for schools, exams, vacations, weddings, moving, retiring, and so on. We fill out paperwork, study, research, and make inquiries and appointments. None of those steps ever make things happen right away, they just make it easier when the times come. Similarly, we all need to take some steps while we are able during our lifetimes to prepare for our deaths, to make things as painless as possible for our loves ones. The act of planning for and talking about death does not make it happen any faster any more than taking the ostrich approach will make death somehow miraculously avoidable. Death is part of the circle of life.
Last year after watching “The Lion King” and several other G-rated Disney movies in which at least one parent, usually the mother, dies, my older daughter had a lot of questions about death and dying (e.g. “why, why, but why, why”). I decided that rather than reply with vague euphemisms that might leave my children confused and frightened during a phase in which they think so literally, we would simply address the topic matter-of-factly as a regular part of the circle of life. A friend recommended the book, “Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children.” I incorporated it into our regular repertoire and began reading it whenever the girls wanted.
A few months later my daughters and I sadly observed a baby bird, that had fallen from somewhere onto our driveway, in its last death throes. It caught me off guard leaving me shaky with all my adult preconceptions and I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly, and unavoidably in tears. My then three-and-a half-year-old comforted me saying, “It’s OK, Mommy, it’s sad but soon there will be flowers growing where that baby bird used to be.” She had grasped the circle of life and made peace with it and I took great comfort in those big ideas coming from her little person.
Perhaps the greatest difference between preparing for childbirth, life stages, and death, is in terms of the one to benefit primarily from all that planning. In preparing for childbirth we are readying ourselves to avoid or deal with pain and confront our own fears at least as much as to meet our babies and provide for their immediate urgent needs. When we prepare for other life stages it is to help us, and/or our children, reach some goal or enjoy some pleasures or avoid some pains. Preparing for our incapacity and death is a less selfish act in which we engage primarily for the benefit of others. We know we won’t be aware or alive to suffer the consequences of not planning, but we do so to spare our loved ones the additional pain that would result from doing nothing (or not enough) during our lifetimes. In this way, we give them the selfless gift of being able to move on, continuing the circle of life (go on, sing it!).