As an adult, I've always been pretty comfy with my fuzzy form of spirituality. I'm happy to attend church services with friends — I love the sense of community. I supported my daughter's baptism, as I have a deep respect for my in-laws' faith as a cultural influence and connection to their heritage. And I've always turned to nature when faced with a challenge. The negative ions gathered from the ocean or redwoods reliably ground my restless spirit. However, I do not pray to a God and I've never been on board with the concept of heaven and hell. So, when my 4-year-old daughter asked me recently where we go when we die, I was left, staring, blinking, mouth agape, wordless — Godless.
I had just lifted her out of the bathtub, whilst she and I were in our most vulnerable states of the day as I wrapped her in a beloved, hooded elephant towel. She was finally ready to talk about the death of her classmate's mother, a heartbreaking passing I had known about for more than a week. Apparently, all the girls in her class had been talking about death, dying and their little friend's dead mother for the better part of that day. They like to play "family" and for the first time were grappling with the sobering change in a family structure that no one is ever really ready to face.
Their teachers had discretely let me know about the girls' laser-like focus on the topic, but I waited for Emerson to bring it up in her own time. As she stood there asking questions like, "Where is Anna's mama?" "Will she ever eat dinner with Anna again?" "What if Anna forgets her mama someday?" "What will they do on her mama's birthday?" and the one I most dreaded, "Are you going to die, Mama?"
For a split second, I considered playing the God card. Thinking I could comfort her with a concept, a belief that I did not share in, but I know that emotional honesty is what every human craves and our children, in particular, can see right through a panic-induced lie. I sat down on the bathroom floor with my girl, looked her square in the eyes and told her that I wasn't sure about where people or animals go when they die. I shared with her that I believed that their spirits lived on... sort of like invisible angels who look after us. I told her that I often feel the presence of my grandmother who died when Emerson was just 6 months old.
And then I explained that some people believe that when we die we go to heaven and it's a safe and happy place where you get to see everyone else who has died. I assured her that it was OK to believe in either story. And then I cried a little and told her it was OK to be sad and miss the ones we love when they are gone. All the while she remained quiet, wide-eyed. Then without another word she threw off her towel, skipped naked and free, off to her room to pick out a book for bedtime. I was left an exhausted heap of tears on the bathroom floor.
Those conversations, the matter-of-fact questions, asked at the most unexpected times and in the most random of places have remained a constant for the past few months. We've talked about ways to honor our deceased loved ones through stories, photos, planting trees and flowers, baking a family cookie recipe or lighting a special candle and remembering a unique quality that person will always contribute to our lives. It's the only way I know how to comfort myself when I miss my own grandparents and great grandmother in moments of quiet desperation. So I'm doing my best to share this faith, my own belief with my girl — in hopes that it brings her some ease and peace. And if she someday turns to God, rather than the redwoods, if she believes that story, I will be happy she has found a loving way to make sense of and deal with death — an inevitable part of life.
Author's note^The children's book The Invisible String by Patrice Karst provides a gentle and reassuring story of lifelong connectedness that can be very useful in dealing with the complicated issue of death and separation.