Tonight I was companionably cooking dinner with my six year old when she served up one of those statements that makes parents realize that the bright bubble of childhood innocence that they have cherished, marveled at and protected since their baby was born can no longer contain their growing offspring:
I wish we didn’t have to die.
The Death Conversation – there’s no preparing for it. With my oldest son it happened three summers ago when we were on an overnight flight from New York to London to visit old friends. I had brought a book on ancient Egypt to amuse him on the plane, thinking we would then visit the British Museum’s incredible Egyptian collection. Instead, reading about mummies got him agitated about death, and I kicked myself for having prompted this discussion in a crowded jumbo jet flying over the ocean at 30,000 feet in the darkness. At least this time I was on solid ground.
What if I wasn’t alive?
My daughter analyzes like a lawyer and studies people like a detective. I could only say what I really thought:
We all have our time to live. We could have lived in the olden days, like Laura and Mary Ingalls. We could have lived in the future. But our time is now, and we are very lucky to have it together.
I wish we could take away time – like I would be six, and then six again, and six again.
I wish it too. I would love for each of you to stay as you are. But we are ever growing; life is ever changing. A big part of learning to live is learning to accept change, even to embrace change.
I wish people could live forever.
I do too. But we’re here because of the people that came before us – our grandparents and great-grandparents. That was their time. And there will be people that come after us – your kids and your grandkids. That will be their time. Besides, if people lived forever, we’d run out of room.
What happens when people die?
Their bodies stop being able to keep them alive. Right now we think it would be great to live forever, because we are healthy and strong. But bodies only last so long. Eventually things stop working so well. Sometimes people lose their ability to walk, or hear, or think well. Sometimes people are in constant pain. And at some point they think, “It’s time to move on.” Especially if their friends and family are already gone. And then they can see their loved ones again in heaven.
What is heaven? How do you get there?
I don’t know. But we’ll be able to be with all our loved ones again there. I think of it as another stage of moving on. It’s scarier than other stages of life, because we can’t see what’s on the other side.
Can people hug in heaven?
Yes honey, people can definitely hug in heaven.
We are extremely fortunate that there hasn’t been an actual death in the family prompting these discussions. One time when my niece and nephew were small, my husband and I called from New York to find them home with a babysitter. Our niece Kay, then six years old, reported that her brother John, then four, was refusing to eat his dinner. We tried to convince John to eat so he would get big and strong, but he insisted that he was not interested. It wasn’t until we talked to my sister-in-law later that we realized what was going on in John’s head. Her much-beloved mother had died a few months earlier after many years of battling breast cancer, and the children were devastated to lose their grandmother. This had prompted the Death Conversation in their household, and Kay and John had been promised that their parents not die until the kids had grown well into adulthood. As it turned out, this hadn’t been assurance enough for John, who had decided his best insurance against his parents dying was to stop eating and refuse to grow.
I don’t know if I believe in heaven. But an afterlife is a comforting concept, and all I want is for my children not to worry about a frightening, unknowable eventuality. I don’t want them to fear a time when I will not be here to comfort and protect them. I want them to know that my love for them will outlast my bodily life.
Mostly what I know is that there is very much that I don’t know. I look at the ocean waves pounding on the shore, the redwood forest towering to the sky, dark storm clouds closing in like a heavy blanket being pulled overhead – and I see that I am a very small force in this world, a tiny part of something unimaginably vast. And then I hope.