Life With No After: A Child’s Lament

This can’t end well . . .

Jesse had gone to bed happy, with a new book, ten minutes earlier. Yet here he was in the doorway of the living room, about to burst into tears.

Stifling my reflexive annoyance at his unscheduled reappearance, I said something comforting, like, “What?!” But he didn’t stop to explain; he just pitched onto the couch next to me, pressed his head into me, and sobbed.

I hugged him hard and did a quick mental scan. Was it the new book? No, the book was funny, a cockeyed look at world mythology. Was he anxious about something? There were no recitals or competitions on the near horizon. And he had a whole Sunday left before school started again. As far as I knew, life was good.

I let him cry for a little while—breathing slowly myself in the hopes that his ragged breaths would subside—and then I said, “Jess, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing. It’s stupid.” I waited. He spoke again. “You just die and then it’s over,” he said. “There’s nothing left.”

Honestly, I was relieved. This was not some new trauma that required doctors or therapists or Internet research in the wee hours. Death is an old, familiar topic for Jesse and me. As a little kid, he worried about how old he would be when Grandma died, and tested the edges of my matter-of-fact nonbelief. “But there could be a heaven, right?” I’m not the kind of person who could just say “right”—even to a six-year-old. I’d say, “Right, but there could be anything, if you look at it that way. We could make anything up, and it would be just as likely to be true.”

Maybe, for Jesse, that humorous book on mythology had the same brutal subtext: tell whatever stories you want, but that’s not going to change what happens in the end. Most of us, whatever we believe, have nights when the obfuscating cloud of daily distraction suddenly parts, and we glimpse the fact that we are—relatively soon—going to die. Without recourse to the promise of Heaven, what do we do? What do we say to comfort ourselves?

I try to remember that when I die, it won’t bother me at all: I’ll be dead. There’s something clean and reassuring about life with no after: no pain, no thoughts, no regrets, nothing.

So that’s what I told Jesse. And he said, “But what’s the point? If you’re just going to disappear?”

I started to say that he’s less likely to disappear than most people—he’d be leaving behind a haunting sonata or a great pop album—but then switched midway, unsure whether achievements really matter in the grand scheme, or whether, if you step back far enough, those are meaningless too.

The point is, I said, to make the most of your life now.

“But it’s pointless.”

Right, I sighed. So you might as well enjoy yourself.

This was preaching to the choir, so to speak. Evidence of Jesse’s exuberant days filled the house: pages of Mendelssohn sheet music in the printer tray, leftover banana bread he’d made on a whim, a penciled list of art projects to do with his little sister, at least four half-started notebooks with ideas for songs, and, on the piano (and under the piano and next to the piano), lead sheets for pop songs he was rehearsing with friends.

Jesse lives big. He has big dreams and big talent and makes big plans; he hugs with his whole body and he sings at full throat; his joy is sunshine happy and his fury is mine-shaft black.

And occasionally a big wave of grief washes over him when he realizes it’s not going to last forever.

He shrugged off my attempts at reasoned reassurance; he’s smart enough to know there’s no answer. That’s what he meant when he said, “It’s nothing.” It’s not nothing—it’s everything—but there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Ten minutes later, the wave passed. As he headed back to bed, it occurred to me that, rather than getting up in the first place, he could have stayed there and cried quietly. That’s what I would have done. That’s what I did do, as a child. Instead he got up to tell me how he was feeling, to give and receive a long hug, to hear my voice. Making his sorrow—every human’s sorrow—a moment of connection rather than isolation.

I don’t know what the point of life is either, but it seems to me he’s getting it.


  1. WHEW! That’s a biggie. One of the best. I didn’t want to read it right this minute, but I couldn’t help it. Love, Jackie
    SOMEDAY we can talk, I hope, about much that you’ve written.

  2. I loved this. And while I was reading, I received a message from another friend: “Who is Kate Cohen? I love her writing.” I hope she saw this post which I just shared by way of a response. I look forward to reading this again.

  3. My oldest used to go through that a lot. I think you handled it well. Those nighttime panics – when I was ready to veg in front of the TV – it was sometimes hard to muster the right tone, but I tried. We tried.

  4. “But he didn’t stop to explain; he just pitched onto the couch next to me, pressed his head into me, and sobbed.” I think this is what there is. “Meaningless”? “Nothing”? In what way? I guess if permanence is the measure, but by no other. Does meaning need brevity? Good piece.

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