We avoid talking with young people about it. “Death’s the last thing on their minds,” we tell each other. “They’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. Why would they want to be thinking about death? That’s morbid! They’ll worry about that when they’re much older.”
The truth is that young people think and worry about death far more than adults would like to believe. Not only do they think about dying physically and what that’ll be like, but they think about the fact of life being finite, despite all that adult talk about the future, the future, the future and the exciting opportunities waiting for those who work hard. Why bother to do anything when we’re going to die anyway?
It’s a good question, a really good question. Young people are sometimes rebuffed with answers about the importance of having a family, of making money, of being successful, of serving God...But more often adults avoid the question of “Why bother...?” for fear of not having The Answer. “Why bother...?” rattles our cages. We feel as if we ought to know; we ought to be able to put young people’s minds at rest and reassure them that life is worthwhile.
For young people, it’s a question underpinning everything. If I’m going to die, then why should I bother to behave? Why should I save my money? Why should I respect other people? Why should I invest in the future or revise for my exams?
Without opportunities to talk about these things and feeling that they should have their own answers by now, young people’s anxieties about death seep out. They go round trying to look tough and courageous, as if they’re afraid of nothing. Or they attach desperately, merging with other people in order not to feel alone. Or they take physical and sexual risks, defying death. Or they fight with other authority-figures because they can’t fight with death, the greatest authority-figure of all. Underneath so much of their behaviour they’re forever asking why: “Why do we have to die?” But no one will engage with the question for fear of not being able to provide The Answer.
It’s important for adults to join young people in their questioning without feeling obliged to have an answer. When adults admit that they don’t know either, it means that the question is a good question, an intelligent question, not a subversive or stupid question. It’s a question young people should be asking.
Kenny’s grandmother has cancer. I ask, “Why do you think that some people, good people like your grandmother, Kenny, get cancer?”
He says he doesn’t know.
I say I don’t know either.
He looks at me, worried but also, I sense, relieved.
I suggest that I’m not giving him the answers he wants.
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s helping.”
“How’s it helping?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “It just is. I’m not used to talking about stuff like this.”
Lots of young people would say the same thing. What they mean is that they’ve never been in a relationship with an adult who doesn’t try to make everything all right, an adult who doesn’t pretend to know, and yet talking with that adult is oddly reassuring.