A day after an Amtrak train derailed in my hometown of Philadelphia, killing eight people and critically injuring many, my husband and I sat safely in our respective offices talking to a lawyer about our wills.
We hadn’t updated our wills in a while — I was guessing it was five or so years ago. It had been keeping me up at night for months. When we got on the phone, our lawyer reminded us that it had actually been 12 years.
Our daughter, who just graduated from college, was then 10 years old, and our now rising high-schooler, merely 2. I guess time had gotten away from us.
“In the event that, God forbid, you both die in a crash tomorrow,” she started. I found myself needing the question repeated. I didn’t want to hear it at all. My mind was returning to the tragic stories of the Amtrak crash victims.
Even in separate offices, I know my husband is feeling the pain of these questions too. The possibility of death felt too close, even though it wasn’t happening. Feelings do that.
I am an anxiety therapist, I tell my lawyer, trying to create some levity. I wanted her to acknowledge the fact that this is so hard. Or maybe I was just buying myself some time.
I talk to people all day about what to do when their minds are hijacked by terrible scenarios, I explained to my lawyer. As if summoning my expertise would rescue me in this moment.
No, no parent wants to think about these things, but we all have to. And actually there’s something important that can come out of this.
Though we may feel unprepared, thinking about these unthinkables is parenting too. It’s the part that feels too hard to bear.
For the sake of our children we need to pull away — from the train wrecks and car crashes and cancer diagnoses that race through our minds — and come back to the present. And then we need to show our children how to do the same.
We need to lead the way for our children about what to do when the unthinkable strikes. To learn, to think twice. Fear comes first and it’s the worst, but then we need to wade back in with the facts: This is important, but it’s not happening to us now.
Because we are here now. Who better to illuminate these dark spaces for our children than us? Who better to show our children the passage back into the light?
By practicing this stepping in and out of the darkness, going back and forth over that firm line of reality to catastrophe, and back again to reality, we can then teach our children the anxiety-buffering understanding that vulnerability challenges us, but doesn’t leave us helpless.
My husband and I ended the call with our lawyer with a list of questions she wants us to get back to her on. A thick fog in our heads prevented us from making decisions at the time. We will go to the dark places, we will make our decisions, and then we will come back to the light.
In these moments in the wake of someone else’s tragedy, we the spared, can teach our children compassion for those who suffer. And take the opportunity to practice resilience.