When a Child Becomes Aware of Death and Mortality

The following is from Rachael Maddux, who wrote about contemplating the idea of death and mortality at a young age. Maddux wrote this essay for The Paris Review last June:

For almost as long as I’ve been alive I have known that I am going to die. This awareness came to me when I was five, going on six, and since I was a child then, selfish and self-orbiting, I assumed a certain universality. At the time, and for years after, it seemed to me that the awareness of death—and therefore the fear of death, because I couldn’t fathom that a person could know of it without fearing it—was something that dawned early in every human life. It was not quite so fundamental as breathing or hair growth or digestion but more innate than learning the alphabet or the order of the days of the week, though soon enough it came to seem just as familiar.

That death was not often talked about in any open or direct way did not seem to make it any less real. As a kid, I intuited that there were certain subjects that were not for me to hear of, and later I came to understand that discussions of those same subjects were best tempered with shrugged shoulders and sideways insinuations. Death was among them, like pooping and menstruating and masturbating. Other times the topic seemed not gauche so much as just too foregone to speak of in any useful way—too vast, too apparent, like the very presence of the sky.

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Photo: Liz West