Of all of the talks and open dialogs I expected to have with my daughter over the years, this was not one of them. But there it is. It’s like a giant neon sign. A topic I never saw coming, yet it has smacked me in the face all the same.
Death. Where do I even begin? HOW do I begin?
“Mommy, where is heaven? How do you get there?”
Our conversation started out innocently enough. I answered her questions the way I do all 78,692 of them, with a mild, even tone. Then I put that short conversation out of mind, because I assumed she would be on to the next thing. Only she wasn’t. This time, it was different. I wasn’t prepared. I am still not prepared.
That oh-so-innocent conversation seems to be at the forefront of her mind, stuck there like a knot that can’t be untangled. Her questions and comments seem to be ramping up instead of fizzling out. My husband and I are perplexed. What do we do? No, seriously, what do we do?
Here is my compassionate, energetic five-year-old, who seems to be completely unsatisfied with our answers. And I get it.
I was about her age when I asked my dad the same questions.
For me, it wasn’t so much a question as a blank statement. I can recall, in detail, where we were and the time of day. It was evening. My dad was sitting in our 1980’s style tan armchair, made out of corduroy material, with dark wood trim. The t.v. in the living room was on. My sister was playing with her toys on the floor. My mom was talking with a relative.
I crawled up in his lap and said, “Daddy, I don’t want to die.” My heart was beating so fast, because I was terrified at the thought. My father is a very gentle, compassionate person and when he imparts his wisdom on you, it’s pretty amazing. But he didn’t do so that day. For me, the actual conversation is a bit hazy. I do know it did nothing to calm my fears, and I never brought it up again.
It’s a memory I hadn’t thought of in decades. Not until my daughter began asking questions. I asked my husband if he remembers asking his parents about death. He has no such memories.
My husband and I have stayed up late many nights talking about this and trying to decide what to do next.
We still answer her direct questions, but have decided it’s best not to say anything when she makes a bold statement.
If we are immersed in a game of tea party for example, and she says, “I don’t want to die and go to heaven,” I stay in her make-believe world and keep right on giving Mr. Bear some tea. But if she has a direct question, I answer it to the best of my ability.
In the midst of all this, we decided it would be best to contact our pastors to see if they had any advice. On our way to the meeting last week, I remember thinking, maybe this was unnecessary since our daughter hadn’t brought up the topic in a few days. It was as if my daughter could hear my thoughts. Right on cue, a little voice from the backseat asks, “Why do people take flowers to the cemetery?” Had we just passed a cemetery? I wasn’t sure. I guess we did need this meeting.
Our pastors had once been where we stand now, in the trenches of parenthood, just trying desperately to not mess it up.
During our meeting we talked about her comments and questions, what we do together as a family, and what movies we watch. As I rambled off a list of Disney movies and other animated films, one stuck out in my mind–Coco. Now, it could have been any movie or none at all that sparked this conversation, and it’s likely we will never know. But at that moment, it seemed like the most plausible choice. (Although truthfully, we have seen dozens of animated movies, many of which have tragedies. Charlotte’s Web, Moana, Frozen, Bambi, and the list goes on.)
While we went on to talk about lots of other things, my take-away is that I am not alone. And while I may feel like I am screwing this up, I am not. (At least I hope I am not. The jury is still out on that!)
For my husband and I, this has brought up so many questions for us as parents.
Questions we are grappling with:
- How long do we wait to see if this fizzles out on its own before we look into a child psychologist?
2. What is an appropriate age to take her to a visitation and funeral?
3. With her favorite holiday on the horizon – Halloween, how will that impact all of her current thoughts and feelings?
4. Do I veto certain movies she has expressed an interested in seeing for the holiday, in fear it will only heighten her concerns about death?
These are just a few in a laundry list of questions my husband and I have asked ourselves lately. And while I would love to wrap up this post in a nice little bow with all of the answers confidently written out for you here, I can’t. We are still in the trenches, sorting through it all. So instead, I would like to cast out my net and ask this amazing group of moms for your advice and uplifting comments as my husband and I continue down this road on our parenting journey.