My son is afraid I’m going to die.
This fear leaks out right about the time he shuts his eyes at night. He’s worried because anything can happen. Tonight’s specific “anything” is accompanied by fear of violence and death in general. He can hardly utter the words. It makes him gasp for breath, wide-eyed and choking at tears.
If you’re like me, these fears make you gasp for breath, too. Worry is the washing of waves against the shore, a constant roar that rises unexpectedly, soaks the cuffs of your pants before you notice it’s even rolling in. It sucks the sand out from underneath your feet. It locks you in, repeating, Anything can happen, anything can happen, anything can happen.
What if you die? What if you die? What if you die?
I know the constant roar he hears in these moments, the way worry sucks you in like a rip current and carries you out into the depths of every possible scenario that could go wrong. My rip current of worry casts a vision of every funereal detail, closets of clothes and empty shoes once worn by loved ones, empty chairs at tables, holes in every holiday, every weekday morning and evening routine, everywhere absence, absence everywhere.
My son is afraid I’m going to die, and all I can do at first is to put my body between him and the rip current and hope we aren’t carried out together.
I make him look at me. I hug him. I pray with him.
You have heard it said, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Philippians 4:6-8).
When my son is afraid I am going to die, when my son is afraid because anything can happen, when my son and my daughter and my husband and my mother and my own washed-out soul are worn thin by worry, it is not promise I seek but peace. I cannot promise my son I won’t die – I will die, anything can happen – but I can seek peace, comfort, and the presence of something huge and mystifying that surpasses understanding to guard my heart.
When my son is afraid I am going to die, I pray with him all kinds of love and thanks. I help him recenter his vision, from the waves to the shore, from the sinking sand to solid ground, from unknown to reality. I offer him what is true – that we are together now, that we love one another, that we are loved. I want to fill his mind with all that is true and noble and right and pure and lovely and admirable.
Sometimes this is enough. Sometimes what you’ve heard said – that prayer and petitions bring peace that passes all understanding – sometimes that comes true for my son, and for me, and we are able to ride the rip current out beyond the waves, then catch a tide back in to shore, tussled but standing.
And then there are the times when it doesn’t work. When I finish praying with my son, and I have said all of the words that promise peace but still the terror flickers on his face, something more is called for, something more potent than mere words. Prayer with legs.
Because prayer is just one way to engage with God, the lover of our souls, just one way to reach for peace that passes understanding. We need something to do with that worry. We need something to make from that grief, anxiety, fear, regret, panic, anger, or pain.
It is true that one day I will die. I can’t promise my son forever together for always but I can redirect his worry, from the unknowable future to the knowable right now. I can make him promises of heaven but heaven also doesn’t have legs – how can he know, dear melancholy child, what heaven could be, or where it is, or that it exists, except by faith, and there’s another word that’s amorphous and unknown to a nine-year-old.
But love’s got legs. When worry rises, ride its wave right into the love you’re so afraid to lose. When worry rises, cry out, “Mom! I love you!” Call, cuddle, snuggle, schedule lunch or a date or a cruise, send a text or a gif or a letter, roll over and tap your loved one on the shoulder, hold her or him or them until the water freezes and then go ice skate on it while it lasts, this lovely minute, this knowable now where God is fully present in the expanding ache of gratitude, the cup runneth over flood of joy and tears, the thought of all that is real and pure and true and admirable and noble formed into reality. “Mom! I love you!”
Love’s got legs. Trample fear and worry flat with them. With love we can find faith. With faith we can hold tight to the promise that God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.