If Prayers Were Horses, Grievers Would Ride

March 11, 2010

Emilia wants to know what happens when we die. She asks a few times a week, on average, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on whether or not we’ve spoken about my dad or about Tanner or about dinosaurs. Today, she asked because they’d been talking about the Easter story at school. She wanted to know why Jesus got to fly up into the sky, and Grandpa didn’t.

You burned him, didn’t you? she asks. How could he fly after that?

Explaining death is one thing. Explaining the cremation, the afterlife and Divine resurrection are something else entirely.

We’ve had a lot of these talks. We’ve been having them since my dad died, since she watched me collapse and shatter into a million tiny pieces and wanted to know why. They’ve been good talks, but I fear that they’ve been better for me than they have for her: she has grounded me with her questions, and given me solace with her answers. Because she has her own answers, she pulls them from the sky or the stars or the spirits or her soul and she lays them bare and shares them with me, her stories, the stories that she weaves to make sense of all this mysterious loss, this loss that I can’t explain, lapsed, struggling Catholic that I am, groping for a faith that eludes.

This is why I am failing at this: I have no answers for her. I have no answers, only wishes, only hopes, only deeply held hopes that I ache to grasp with certainty, but which remain – for me, who is grasping at that lost faith, that faith that once upon a time held answers – ephemeral, evanescent, faint. So when she asks me, where did Grandpa go, I say, I think that he went to a place called Heaven, a wonderful place full of love and light where we will someday see him again, and I cry as I say it, because I don’t know for sure, and I wish with every particle of my soul that I did know, that I could know, because I would give anything to know, anything. And she says, in the softest of voices, I know where he is. He’s in his Death House, the one that I made him, and someday we will go there.

– Oh, sweetie…

I know that you think he’s in that box, but he’s not, he’s in his house in Heaven, and we’ll go there someday, and you’ll see, and you’ll know.

And my heart expands, and breaks.


My friend Kate, who has known terrible loss, wrote the other day about thumb-wrestling with Death as she prepares for the death of her grandmother. She didn’t like doing it, she said, not least because he has longer thumbs, which I imagine is true. She asked her readers to not leave condolences, but, instead, memories, of their mothers, whose flour-dusted hands wiped tears and whose lipsticked mouths left kiss-marks and whose warm arms were the safest place in either earth or Heaven, so that we might reflect upon motherhood persisting against and beyond death, and I said this:

I have nightmares, about losing my mom, about losing my mom after losing my dad and being left, alone, without them, an orphan, my longest and most deeply held fear. I have nightmares, about fighting with Death, about begging him to stay away.

I’m sorry. I wanted to say something lovely, about my mom’s belly laugh and her twinkling eyes and her perverse imagination, the one that conjures alligators in closets for my daughter to hunt and her ability to bake a lemon cake, right on the spot, just because you asked. But I’ve been having nightmares.

I have been having nightmares, nightmares wherein my dad is already gone and then my mom goes too and I am left to suffer the pain of my greatest fear, the fear that drove me to sleep on their bedroom floor at night, the fear that kept me from sleepover parties and sleep-away camp, the fear of losing them, of being left alone, an orphan. When I was child, my good Catholic parents would comfort me and soothe me and brush my hair from my tear-dampened cheeks and tell me that they would never leave me and I clung to that, even as I knew it to be false, I clung to it, and when I flew west to deal with my father’s death some months ago (an eternity ago, a second ago) I sat in my seat on the plane and cried and cried and cried like the little girl that I had suddenly become again, having flashed backwards in time to that experience of knowing that it would happen and that it would hurt, bad, worse than anything else I could imagine, and then flashed forward again to discover that yes, yes, this is exactly how it feels, and it is terrible, horrible and bad.

And so now I am terrified of having the loss compounded. And I am terrified of communicating – directly or indirectly, intentionally or not – this terror to Emilia, who is too astute, who knows too well when I am sad or afraid and who knows the difference between my sadness and my fear and wants to understand them. But I don’t want her to understand them, I don’t want her to think about losing me, because I want to forestall this pain for her, even as I shudder at its inevitability.

I have nightmares. And my only solace – my lifesaver, my heartsaver, the backbone of my soul armor – is, really, my daughter and her kindergarten theology, her insistence that it will all be okay, that we will all end up at happy place, that she knows this, because we must, because it is true.

I hold her to me tightly, and weep for this, in gratitude and shame.

nikon - 2010 103

Are there horses in Heaven? — I don’t know; what do you think? — Did Grandpa love horses? — He did. — Then there are horses there. Someday, I will ride them.

– Me too, sweetie. Me too.


This post was inspired by a discussion that was shared between me and some very good friends – Lindsay, Loralee, Julie and Devra – at Mom 2.0. We curled up on the floor of the bedroom of the Four Season’s Presidential Suite during the CheeseBurgHer party and talked spirituality and faith, grief and loss, prayer and meditation and all variety of confused and confusing things. And then Lindsay decided that maybe we should explore some these questions (like the one I’m struggling with above, talking to kids about death) together, on our blogs. So we are. You’re welcome to join in. Leave me a link if you do. Or just speak your piece in the comments. Talking, maybe, will bring enlightenment. Or maybe more confusion. Either/or.

So: how do you talk to your children about death? Do you talk to your children about death? If they ask the hard questions, how do you/will you answer? Or do you, will you, like me, seek their answers, and look for comfort there?

PS: I offer another, somewhat less morose reflection on navigating the waters of loss with children over at Their Bad Mother. Because once I start talking, I can’t stop.

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    red pen mama March 12, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    haven’t read all the comments yet, so please excuse me if I repeat: Have you read The Little Prince with her? I found much solace in it (I was 12 at the time) when I was attending my first funeral for my dad’s mom. It’s the part about the body only being a shell. Maybe something to help both you and Emilia grasp what happens when we die (or one version of that, anyway).

    Sending much love and hugs. We discuss death (and sex) a lot around here, too, and it’s tough. To respect their feelings and be honest and respect our own feelings and be honest with ourselves, too.
    .-= red pen mama´s last blog ..Eat You Up =-.

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2010 at 9:32 am

    I love the Little Prince and have found tremendous solace in it around death. The final pages, about the saddest landscape in the world, the landscape absent his friend, captures perfectly how loss reshapes how we view the world. I have more than one copy of the book, actually, and added another when I took my dad’s after he died. That he kept his copy by his own bedside was a solace to me.

    red pen mama March 12, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    And, because you asked, this is how I talk to my older daughter about death: http://albamaria30.wordpress.com/2010/02/25/sex-and-death/

    I just try to be honest. My faith in God is pretty strong (I am a practicing Catholic), which in some ways makes it easier for me. I really do believe in Heaven, or a heaven, or that we really are with God when we die. And maybe that’s simplistic on my part, but it helps me and comforts me. And I can’t turn away from that as one who has grieved and, undoubtedly, will grieve again.

    I loved sweet l salty Kate’s post on death and his thumbs. She is as good as evoking me as you are. I thank you both.
    .-= red pen mama´s last blog ..Eat You Up =-.

    ParentopiaDevra March 12, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    I remember when I was around 5 my grandfather told me he wanted to be cremated. Sounds like a strange thing to tell a kid, but you’d have to know more about my grandfather to understand it was totally normal for him. He had always been somewhat fixated on death, probably because his mom died when he was only 16 and he later was diagnosed with TB and almost died himself. This was the same guy who would yell down the airplane terminal as we boarded our flight home from a visit with “This may be the last time we see each other alive!” He was also an oncologist, so death was familiar to him. So when he told me he wanted to be cremated, I understood this to be something Jews don’t do and I freaked out and told him G-d would be angry if he really went through with being cremated instead of buried. My grandfather told me that he believed in a forgiving G-d and when he “met his Great Redeemer, he would apologize if being cremated wound up being a mistake.” My grandfather said I paused to think about that, and then suddenly burst into tears and lamented, “But G-d won’t recognize you!” Emilia’s response reminded me of how as a kid I had visualized a pile of ashes trying apologize to G-d for being cremated! Kids are so very literal, aren’t they?
    I’m so happy we got to sit together on the floor and Lindsay figured out how we could all continue our conversation from the floor onto our blogs and into the RSS feeds of so many who also struggle with how to talk to kids about death and dying. It ain’t easy this parenting thing, now is it?!

    Her Bad Mother March 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

    It ain’t. but it makes it easier, having friends like you, and a community like this :)

    rie March 13, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    BORING!!!Fuck off you loser breeder assholes ,your kids suck. — bratfree.

    Trish March 14, 2010 at 10:05 am

    You must have such a hollow, empty, pathetic life. How sad. Seriously; I’d feel really sorry for you if you weren’t such a judgmental bitch.

    Becca_Masters March 14, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Wow. Someones clearly got issues!
    Grow the fuck up, seriously.
    .-= Becca_Masters´s last blog ..from Becca with Love =-.

    Becky March 14, 2010 at 10:42 am

    Don’t feed the trolls.

    Mary P (BarnMaven) March 14, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Nothing like some random hate to start off my Sunday morning. Back under the bridge, troll.
    .-= Mary P (BarnMaven)´s last blog ..Inspired =-.

    RiceWenchie March 14, 2010 at 11:10 am

    It’s a shame they couldn’t get their punctuation and spacing right. It just ruins the whole flow of the complaint.

    The troll never was good at sharing and taking turns. Or typing. His fingers are too big.

    Three Billy Goats Gruff

    Shannon March 14, 2010 at 10:51 am

    We had to explain loss very early on to our kids, and found honesty to be easiest. The truth is, I don’t know what happens after death, and usually I ask them what they think… their answers change as the kids grow. One of the books I read a lot to them when they were smaller was “Where do balloons go” by Jamie Lee Curtis. It’s not overtly about death and dying, but asks the questions. I still can’t read it without choking up on the last page. I think we all can learn a lot about grief by discussing it and working through it together.

    Suebob March 14, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I read almost all your posts but don’t comment very often. What usually happens is that I think “I have to think very hard about this before commenting” and then I go off and think and never get to the point where I am finished thinking. You write on such great, deep topics.

    Even though I go to church regularly and though I believe a loving God created us, I don’t claim to know what happens after death. My church is not dogmatic – I could not stand a church that claimed to have the answers.

    My mother is elderly and in horrible pain. She has arthritis and can only walk a step or two and can barely move at all. She often wishes to die.

    She decided to quit taking her heart medication and to let a heart attack take her. She had three fairly serious episodes of chest pain – about which she told no one but my father – before the last one, when she decided not to die and instead to call the paramedics.

    It was in the hospital that day when I found out her plan. She was telling the doctor and it was like a kick to the chest. I had often wished for her to die so that her suffering would end. I thought that was a perfectly reasonable position, one that sprang from kindness and concern for her.

    But when I was faced with the reality, I just couldn’t breathe. I burst into tears and she said “You know why I didn’t want to go on living this kind of life.”

    I said “I know. I know but I still want you around.” Sobbing. I think she was a little flattered by my reaction, in a funny way.

    I grasp at straws. The dreams of my dead sister having fun on the beach. The visions of those about to die who see their loved ones waiting for them. The near-death experience stories.

    But I don’t know. The Great Mystery indeed.

    Big hugs to you, sweetie. Thanks for talking about this.
    .-= Suebob´s last blog ..Oh what a feelin’. Peel me off the ceiling. =-.

    makingtime March 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

    I’m several days late, but I figure this isn’t exactly a one-day-only topic. I lost my father very suddenly two years ago and have written a little about it and appreciate your writings on losing your father. This post of yours inspired me to write another post today: http://whattherestimefor.typepad.com/what-theres-time-for/2010/03/about-the-big-question.html

    You can follow a few links within that post to the other times I’ve written about talking to my son about death. (He’s just three, so there haven’t been so many conversations about it yet.)

    Kairos March 18, 2010 at 9:54 am

    I’m delurking to comment on this a bit late.

    I’m sorry for your loss of your father. I heard at grief support group that after the first major loss it is common to be afraid of future losses, because you now know how much it will hurt. I am certainly terrified of losing someone else close.

    I do talk to my surviving twin about death. I have to, her brother passed away last February. She is 4 and has the usual curiosity about everything. We manage okay on talking about some things and not so great on others. I had real problems figuring out how to answer questions on whether Drew was having a birthday part in heaven and who would be there. We let her ideas make up the answers after some fumbling on our parts.

    The best book about death for kids that I’ve found so far is Lifetimes:by Bryan Mellonie. I also thought When Dinosaurs Die by Laurie Krazny Brown was nicely done.
    .-= Kairos´s last blog ..Ice cream =-.

    Al_Pal March 30, 2010 at 12:57 am

    I’m a fairly scientific person. I don’t belong to any religion.

    But I DO believe that there is an afterlife where we get to hang out with our family and friends, for as long as we need or want to…and that if after that we want to come here and experience another lifetime, we do.

    Instead of Hell for people who’ve Done Bad Things, I believe there’s Afterlife School, where they have to deal with all their atrocities.

    I had a beautiful dream once, where it seemed like the Veil lifted a bit. I’ve had no fear of death ever since then. ;D

    Best Wishes.
    .-= Al_Pal´s last blog ..Sensitivity: I have it. =-.

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