Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch
I have a friend who is afraid. Trauma in her life likely primed her to view the world with caution, assessing the danger. When a man tried to break to into her house, she huddled with her family in the hallway, calling the cops, hoping the man would go away. She said it was the thing she had always feared…and it happened.
We learned my son’s medical care and risks three years ago. There was one potential emergency yet to happen. I warned my mom about it; trained the babysitter on what to do. We experienced it in the safety of the hospital, but never at home. And then it happened.
The thing we feared the most happened…and we survived.
It seems to cause a great deal of panic when it happens. The mind has been tuned into the particular fear with each evening alone or each medical moment. The anticipation seemed to build quietly without us knowing it. We faced other emergencies before. But when this happened, it was as if the roof caved in.
And no one was more worried than me, not the doctors, nor the nurses, nor triage.
For my friend: not her husband, not the police.
Our imagination grew our fears. They were scary things. They were real emergencies.
Children perceive fear in all kinds of places: in the dark, in the overgrown brush, in the waves, in the dog.
My children are afraid of dogs. We spotted a chocolate lab made famous on Nextdoor and lured the dog to the yard with ham, securing him until his owner could pick him up. I invited my daughter to come closer, as I rubbed the belly of the friendly Labrador. “What are you afraid will happen?” I asked.
“That he will bite me,” she admitted. Nevertheless, with some fear and trembling, she approached and pet him, a dog bigger than herself.
We watch as the child’s imagination grows the fear, unaware that we act in the same way. “Don’t be afraid,” we tell the child. “It’s fine.” “Nothing to be afraid of here!”
The monster under the bed or in the closet, instead of being a nighttime inconvenience, could be an opportunity. “Don’t be afraid,” won’t prepare us for the thing that really is scary.
It is scary to be corned by a German Shepherd (or a rooster). It is scary to hear the bone snap. It is scary to hear someone pounding on your back door. It is scary to see your child bleed.
“Don’t be afraid,” doesn’t cut it.
“What are you afraid of?” Get to the heart of the matter.
“I’m afraid he will bite me.” I explain about the dogs’ relaxed ears, his open mouth and panting tongue, his exposed belly, his wagging tail, Labradors’ reputation for friendliness.
The doctor explains the risks and safety precautions, why those precautions make it a little less emergent.
Some evidence soothes the fears. Some situations remain just scary. Where evidence cannot reduce the fear, preparations begin: a home alarm, an exit plan, a form of defense.
We do what we can to cope. A child calls for his mother. “Look under the bed!” “Can I have a night light?” “Stay with me a little.”
The parent reassures, supplies a low wattage bulb and the child drifts to sleep.
The child seems to know what will make the situation better: someone in his life who always makes the situation better, the parent who magically has the answers, whose comfort scares the monsters away.
It is okay to admit some things are scary. Evidence is helpful. Preparations are important. But sometimes all we need is to ask for a nightlight, and that’s okay, too.