When my father died a few months ago, my daughter drew this picture:
‘This,’ she announced as we huddled over it together at my mother’s kitchen table, filling in the details, “is Grandpa’s Death House. It’s where he lives now.”
“I’m sure that he’s so happy that you made him such a wonderful Death House, sweetie. So happy.”
“He IS so happy. I made it so that every part of it is happy” – she pointed to the clouds made of hearts, the pink motorcycle balancing on the Christmas tree, the friendly shark (“because he needs pets”), the flowers nestled under the window through which the tiny shadow figures of her and her grandpa can be seen standing arm in arm – “so that he will be happy there. It’s where he lives now.” She pulled her crayon back from the picture and studied the finer detailing around the friendly ridgebacked shark. “Can we go visit him?”
“We can’t go visit him, sweetie. He’s, um, in heaven now. That’s where his house is. That’s why he can have heart-clouds. He’s in heaven.”
“Because he’s dead?”
“Are the dinosaurs in heaven, too?”
“I don’t know.”
She bent over the picture and added a sunbeam.
“Are you sure we can’t visit?”
We’re three months into this loss now, and I still wear my grief, and she still asks questions. Why? Where? What? If Jesus is in heaven, and Grandpa is in heaven, and Jesus and Grandpa are dead, and the dinosaurs are dead, aren’t the dinosaurs in heaven, too? And, can we go there? Please can we go there? Why can’t we go there?
I don’t have the answers. I make vague stabs at trying to explain heaven and angels and the soul and about how when people die, it’s like going to sleep, but forever, and they kinda sorta go somewhere else, maybe, I hope, and I think that that somewhere else is heaven but I’m not sure and we can’t go there and yeah I wish we could but we can’t because going there means we have to leave here and never come back and no I’m not going there soon but someday and OH HEY LOOK A DINOSAUR!
I don’t know to answer her because I don’t know to answer myself. I don’t know what I believe, only that he’s gone and it’s terrible, so so terrible, and he must – he must – be somewhere good and happy and peaceful – he must, I know that he must – and we will see him again someday, we will, but what that all means in the bigger picture, and what that all has to do with Jesus and dinosaurs, I don’t know. So how do I talk to her about this? How do I talk about death with this small child for whom death just means moving to a rainbow colored house under a marshmallow sky, for whom Jesus is a dinosaur-wrangler and heaven a suburb of Candyland?
And how do I talk about it without my heart shattering into a million pieces each and every time?
(My question here – how do you talk to your kids about death? – will be featured at ParentsAsk later today, where, hopefully, some very smart expert-type persons will have some very smart expert-type answers. In the meantime – and because I believe, firmly, that some of the best answers come from ordinary people thinking with their hearts – I’d love it if you’d share your answers. And while you’re thinking about the core question, you might put your hearts/minds/heart-minds to these: does regular attendance at church help with this kind of thing? Does it matter? Do your kids need to have an understanding of God and heaven to understand concepts like soul and afterlife? Or do you just bust out The Little Prince?)
(Is this why people get goldfish?)