A NOTE ABOUT THIS POST: As I was preparing to write this post last week, I wondered to myself what Julie tells her girls when they ask about death. (Julie is a mother I respect and adore. She is also an atheist.) Then I thought of an amazing conversation I had recently at our Cheeseburgher Party in Houston with Devra, Catherine and Loralee. Somehow, our discussion turned to religious beliefs and we marveled that the four of us, a Protestant, a Jew, a Mormon and a Catholic, could sit together and calmly and respectfully talk about what we believe and why. I like to think it’s a mom thing. As a result of that conversation, I formed a bond with them that night that’s going to give me a warm, fuzzy feeling every time I see them.
Anyway, it occurred to me that this particular post would be so much more interesting if all of these women would perhaps agree to write about the same topic on the same day. I sent out an e-mail and received four enthusiastic responses. They were all in! How exciting!
So, after you read my post on trying to explain death to my 5-year-old daughter from a Protestant perspective, head on over to Parentopia! And Her Bad Mother! And Loralee’s Looney Tunes! And The Mom Slant! Feel free to leave a comment with your own thoughts on the matter, and if you want to write a post on it, let me know and I’ll link to you. Talking about death is one of the most difficult tasks we face as parents and I believe that a discussion like this one can really help us refine what we believe and why- which better equips us to explain it to our children.
Okay? Okay! Here’s my post…
I’m starting to think of tucking my daughter in at night as, “Deep Thoughts with Punky Ferrier.”
Bedtime is always her moment to drop a bomb on me.
“Mommy, how did Bruiser get in your tummy?”
“Mommy, will you not be my mommy some day, like with my sisters? You used to be their mommy but you’re not anymore.”
Lately, her questions have taken on a theological tone.
“Mommy, are you really supposed to love God more than your parents? Do you love God more than me? How could I ever love God more than my parents?”
And then there are her more disturbing thoughts on death.
“I don’t want to give up my body, Mommy! I love my body!”
“Can old people not breathe anymore? Is that why they die?”
“Do I have to go to heaven? Can’t I just stay here on earth?”
I try to answer her as best I can, but I never feel as prepared for these questions as I’d like to be. For one thing, it’s the end of the day and my brain is pretty much operating on auto pilot at that point. For another, I struggle with what’s appropriate to tell a five-year-old. What can she understand? What would just scare her if I try to explain it?
More importantly, what do I believe? And why? Talking to my daughter about death has made me realize that it’s not something I think about very often, because it’s so frightening, it’s a taboo subject- not the fact that we die, but what actually happens afterward. If I believe in heaven, though, how do I think I’m supposed to get there, and when? These were specifics I hadn’t really considered in a long time.
As far as Punky is concerned, I quickly decided to keep it simple. Heaven, I told her, is a place where she can have fun and be happy forever.
“So I can have as much ice cream as I want in heaven?” she asked delightedly. “And I can have a puppy? LOTS of puppies?”
“Whatever it takes to make you happy is in heaven,” I said.
“YAY! I can’t wait to go to heaven!” she said. I smiled, relieved. No, there’s nothing in the Bible about hundreds of adorable, wriggly puppies waiting for us just beyond the pearly gates, but I figured the analogy gave her five-year-old mind a good idea of how awesome heaven’s going to be.
The next night, though, didn’t go so well.
“Would you do whatever God told you to do?” Punky whispered after we said our prayers.
“Yes,” I said. “I might not like it, but I’d do it.”
“But what if God tells you to go to heaven before me?” Punky whimpered. “I’m scared you’ll go to heaven before me. I just want us to go to heaven together. Would you do what he said? Would you?”
My mouth grew dry. Punky was giving a voice to my greatest unspoken fear and the last thing I wanted was to pass that fear onto her. I also didn’t want to lie to her.
“Oh Punky,” I said, hugging her. “I don’t think God is going to ask me to do that any time soon. But here’s what I want you to do. Any time you’re feeling afraid about that, I want you to pray to God and tell him, and ask God to let you and your family live long and happy lives together. Because the Bible tells us that God listens to our prayers. And he will make you feel better about everything if you pray to him when you’re afraid.”
Punky nodded quietly, but I could tell she was still worried. I was ashamed to realize, though, that I didn’t have any good answers.
That night, I pulled out a book I’ve ended up using even more than any of my What to Expect books. My dad passed it on to me shortly after Punky was born. It’s called 801 Questions Kids Ask about God and it’s a very straightforward and simple reference book that I end up consulting whenever Punky asks a theological or moral question.
I won’t go into major theological detail here since I’m not really interested in starting a debate today on what I believe about death and why (Another day? Yes! But not today.). But I did come up with a game plan on how I want to discuss death with her, which is something I’d advise every one of you with small children to do now. I also realized that I need to spend a lot more time studying the Bible and really pinpointing what I believe about Christianity and why- because I can tell already that I’m going to have some serious ‘splaining to do in the coming years. How can I tell my children that being a Christian is important if I can’t explain why? How can I instill a certainty in my daughter about her future and banish her fears about death if I can’t articulate the certainty I myself have?
I hope you’ll take the time to read what Devra, Catherine, LoraleeandJulie have to say about talking about death with their own children. I can’t wait to read their posts myself. And I’d love to hear what you think about the matter, how you’ve chosen to explain the subject to your children, and whether you’ve found good resources that have helped you along the way. I’ve had trouble finding other good Christian perspectives on explaining death to young children, and if you know of a good one, I’d love to hear about it.
Image via Rob Shenk/Flickr