How Natasha Richardson's Death Affects Parents

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Actor Liam Neeson and his mother-in-law, Vanessa Redgrave, walk through St. Peter's Cemetery in Lithgow, N.Y. on March 22 after a funeral for Neeson's wife, Natasha Richardson, who died in New York on March 18th following a skiing accident Mike Groll / AP

When my daughter was two weeks old, I was standing at the top of some steps and for a minute, I held her tighter because I was truly afraid that the wind would blow her out of my arms. It sounds crazy now, but the urge to protect your child is hardwired and sometimes irrational. Indeed, for the first few years of their lives, it seems like our main occupation is to keep them from certain death. You scoop tiny chokeable bits of things out of their mouths; you grab them by the pants just before they fall off a chair, the stairs, the top of the slide; you stop them from prying old gum off the sidewalk.

And of course sometimes kids do fall, and there you are in the Emergency Room, freighted with guilt or panic or both. Most of the time, they are fine and you get used to a certain level of parental worry. But there’s another opposite and almost equally terrifying thought that we don’t talk about as much: what if something happened to us before our kids were old enough to take care of themselves?

We’re usually so preoccupied with our children’s wellbeing, that our own safety is an afterthought. But the deaths of two notable mothers over the past week, both with young children, have made those thoughts hard to avoid. Last Wednesday, actress Natasha Richardson died in New York from a brain injury after a skiing accident. She and her husband, actor Liam Neeson, had two sons—just 12 and 13 years old. Then, over the weekend, 27 year-old British reality TV star, Jade Goody, succumbed after a long and public struggle with cervical cancer. She left behind two little boys, ages four and five.

Neither woman was superstar famous, but the stories of their deaths, were chilling to the mothers I know. Some of us could barely remember a movie we’d seen Richardson in, we just knew that she was gracious and well-loved and just 45 years old. Her passing from something as capricious and random as a minor fall on the gentlest of ski slopes was so jarring that we couldn’t stop talking about the how and the why. We hoped that an autopsy would show that something else, a preexisting condition maybe, caused her death. But no. These things happen. It could have been any of us.

And when we learned that she waved away an initial offer of medical care after her fall, we understood. I’m sure that if one of Richardson’s children had bumped his head she would gone to an Emergency Room immediately, and stayed for as long as it took to be absolutely sure that the boy was fine. But how many parents, if we’d taken a small tumble, would have looked at the day’s plans and said, “No, I don’t want to ruin everyone’s vacation only to spend hours at the hospital over a minor bump. We don’t have time. I’ll be fine.”

We find it easy to postpone our own doctor’s appointments, but not the ones for the kids. We helmet them, but not ourselves. This is why airlines still have to remind parents to put their own oxygen masks on before they take care of the kids.

The passing of Britain’s Goody inspired another trail of questions for parents. She was known as a kind of over-the-top, “wrong side of the tracks, Lady Diana,” and had become famous after a controversial stint on the reality show “Big Brother.” When she learned that she had an aggressive form of cervical cancer, this young woman who had not much else to offer, decided to sell the rights to televise her last days so that her two sons would be provided for.

Her decision caused an uproar in England. But it made me think twice about what I’d do for my two daughters if I knew I wasn’t going to be around. So many of us haven’t properly sorted out a living will, or even a regular will with provisions for guardianship should our kids be left without either parent. And as for less concrete types of preparation, I’m not sure what I’d do if I were given the terrible luxury of time to prepare my two daughters for my own passing. Goody told her sons that they could look to the sky and find her there, a star to watch over them. Hearing that, it was impossible not to think about what I’d say to my girls. It’s like the unexplainable urge to put your finger right into the blue center of a candle flame. Horrible and irresistible.

But another week of work, school projects and laundry is already upon us; it won’t be long before we forget Richardson and Goody. That’s perhaps one blessing of having young children. The struggle to simply keep up with the everyday doesn’t leave much time for fretting over hypotheticals. Still, I am going to finally make an appointment for a long overdue checkup. I'll do it for my kids. And I’ll be thinking about Richardson’s and Goody’s children as I do it.

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