I Could Use A Little Bit of Heaven Right Now...

My four year old has acquired a death fetish. Death worms its way into our conversation in rather interesting and at times alarming ways. Lately, for instance, he has announced on several occasions that he will be marrying "Alicia" when he grows up. (And this despite our best attempts to free him from the mantle of heteronormativity "boys can't get married, momma. You're silly." "Shuddup and keep signing your Little Mermaid's valentines, Romeo..")

"Well. That's nice. Can I come to the wedding?"
"No. Because you will be dead."

Alicia, in turn, has apparently informed her parents that when she marries Jack, they should feel free to up and die because she won't be needing them any more.

This incident in and of itself is pretty amusing, and it's nice to know that he is connecting death with the replacement of life and the fact that one day, when we're dead, he will have a baby boy too.

But then there are moments when he asks and there is a hint of anxiety. "Mommy. Are you going to die?" Or "Grandma. You're old. Are you going to die soon?" And just once he's said "I don't want to die, Momma." Which just kills me...

It's times like this that I wish I had more to fall back on than switching into hyper-cheery mode and singsong "Yes, but not for a longlonglonglonglonglong time." I wish I could go the "we're all going to Heaven" route.

Husband and I grew up with Heaven. In England--where there is no separation of Church and State, but where, ironically, gay marriage is now fucking legal--I attended Church of England schools until I was 18. This was where I got my religion--school assembly each morning with happy-clappy sing songs "Give me ooooil in my lamp, keep it burnin', Keep it burnin' til the break of day!" Nice stories about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and then finishing up ("hands together, children. let's pray...") with a dutifully monotone Lord's Prayer. Church attendance in my family was limited to christenings and weddings (including my own). Oh, and vaguely pissed Christmas Eve evenings ("because it don't feel like Christmas if you don't 'ave a bit of carol singing"). Apart from this, religion did not feature heavily in my household, except for the fact that Christmas was as much about singing "Away in A Manger" as "Frosty the Snowman," and when you died you went to heaven. Just try and be nice to others.

My husband's religious upbringing was decidedly more hardcore. Catholic. Nuns and priests. And rulers to smack your hand with. While I was blithely clapping along to guitar renditions of "Kumbaya," he and his classmates sang in dirge-like chorus to the much more graphic "Eat his Body, Drink His Blood!" and "Were you theeeere, when they crucifiiiiied my Lord? Were you theeeeere when they nailed him to the Tree?" Last night he told me about a sibilant Bishop who came to their school to tell them all that on arrival at Heaven's Gate, God would produce a videotape of one's life and replay it, and pause on "all the parts with all your sinssss." In contrast to me, his family regularly attended church and said grace before dinner, and he even attended mass routinely until shortly before I met him (and completely corrupted him with my demonic ways).

So there we are. A Recovering Catholic and an "I'm agnostic. No I'm an atheist, No. I'm an agnostic" who can't commit. We've both been trained to deconstruct life's grand meta-narratives, and so it's made this religion part a bit difficult for us to pull off at home. It's not that either of us are devoid of spirituality (Well. I think I'm not devoid. If I believe in the spirit that is. I think I do believe in the spirit. No I don't) it's just that once you bring in Heaven then you bring in God. And Angels. And possibly Jesus. Unlike with Santa and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, with Heaven you get a bigassed Ideology to contend with. And yes, we could go the "we're all one energy" route and just talk about a place we go that's on a higher plane and leave Jesus out of it, but quite frankly I'd rather deal with God than New Age shite any day of the week.

But I grew up with a Heaven. And I know it was comforting. Especially in those days as a nine-year old trying to process that her baby sister had just died, and that, no no no no, she was not in that black-plastic bag you saw mummy sob over. That was just her clothes from the hospital. Sister was in Heaven.

Does a life without Heaven--especially a child's life--mean a life without that sense of comfort or hope? Is there a way to talk about death where it's still meaningful but stripped of the parts that I can't quite bring myself to teach to my child for fear of being a hypocrite? I really am clueless, but right now as I watch my boy confront mortality I become more and more tempted to give him Heaven. At least until he can become deeply cynical and old enough to reject it, resenting us for inculcating him in the process.

UPDATED TO ADD: Any and all insights, shared experiences, advice welcome. As long as you don't think I'm going to burn in hell or anything.


Karen said...

Hi - I'm really enjoying perusing your blog. Not sure you want my advice cause we are for sure going the heaven/Jesus route, but sincerely from our hearts with no ruler smacking at all, more baby Jesus came to love us and be close to us stuff...
In any case my son did have an amazing experience at school where they talked about death. Some of the eggs in their incubators did not hatch and the kids were sad (they were 6) and the teacher gave them a chance to open up one of the eggs (voluntary activity) and bury it to enrich the earth. It was really beautiful and my thoughtful child came home with the idea that no matter how long a person or animal has lived here on this earth they have had an impact, they have enriched the soil, both literally and spiritually. It was amazing to see him acknowledge that lives great and small should mean a great deal to us...this was helpful as he does have some recollection from earlier years of a late miscarriage of mine. There was a sister that he expected and missed but her reality made an impact on him, on me, on our family and world, somehow. I think it has made him more senstive to the sorrows of others, which is a beautiful quality in an american white boy coming of age in a war.

In other news, when he was four he announced he was going to marry me when he grew up. When pressed about what would happen to his father he announced that he would be dead, but then 5 minutes later recanted and decided that his dad would live in a house far, far away (which I guess is better than patricide, maybe?) Well, he's over it now and decided to marry one of his classmates who has a swimming pool - good choice!

toyfoto said...

My three-year-old is coming out with doozies about who's dead now. Which, I must admit, creeps me out just a little. But nothing like when she came home last night from the sitter -- an Evangelical Christian -- and declared that it didn't matter that "Amah was dead (she's NOT) because Jesus was smiling his face at her."

I went through all the thoughts you shared: My husband, an atheist, and I, a lapsed Catholic who sees the comfort in an afterlife but doesn't really have faith it exists, but I can't yet figure this out for us, either.

Oh, The Joys said...

Having just been through a family death, this has come up.

I too am struggling for answers.

K is a "recovering Catholic" and I was raised without much proper churching.

I do think there is comfort in the idea of heaven and faith in general for kids, but wonder if I am somehow falsely representing myself to the children about it all...

ozma said...

These are such hard questions. We're going for the God thing, probably without a super intense religion element but with Jewish religious observance. I think it is harder if your own beliefs do not link up to any faith but you see some value to faith but considering that you are sort of open to different possibilities--due to your agnositic/atheist inner conversation--why not offer him these possibilities and see what he thinks. When he asks you what you think you could tell him you are not sure but you will teach him about different ideas and he can think about those ideas--and that what you are doing yourself. Raise him with your own questioning and inner conversation? And to be open and knowledgeable about what others believe and thoughtful and reflective and lots of other great things that it seems that you and your husband are. I think transmitting those values is transmitting your 'faith' such as it is. If he needs a particular world view at this stage in his life, he may find it himself--you can leave some of the decision up to him for now, as much as that is possible.

Although I wrote recently about how I am a guilt wracked person and also about my Catholic upbringing (my religious upbringing was actually much more funky than I described) I'm enormously grateful for that experience. (I didn't mean to imply that Catholicism made me guilt-wracked exactly--more that the nuns had guilt down to a science.) I want to give my kid some of the beauty and value there. I have some very fundamentalist-type relatives and believe it or not, they taught me a lot about love and compassion and other great things. I hope I can do the same if in a different way.

BlogWhore said...


could be kill a bottle a wine over this one.

google 'pentecostal.' i'm scared shitless to get back into any kind of religion and without religion there is very little spiritual structure.

when u find answers, e-mail me.

BlogWhore said...


MsPrufrock said...

I haven't thought much about this issue since my daughter is only 7 months old, but I really should.

My husband is an atheist and I suppose I would consider myself agnostic. We have agreed to raise P. as "religiously neutral" - ensuring that we enable her to explore the world's religions and beliefs without pushing them or encouraging our own beliefs (or lack thereof). That's the plan anyway.

In regard to death specifically, it is such a hard concept for a child to deal with I would hate to paint a negative picture by saying, "Oh well kid. That's all there is!" I should think that would frame her religious belief structure, which I don't want to do. I was raised in an observant Presbyterian household, and naturally was told there was a heaven. That helped me through many pet deaths, and the eventual deaths of two close family members. I can't imagine being told at a young age that once you're dead, you're dead. It's a rather grim view for a child to deal with.

In the course of this response I asked my husband what he, the atheist thought on this matter. He's going the heaven route, which does surprise me. A "pleasant fiction" he called it.

No answers from me I'm afraid, but I've enjoyed reading what others have had to say. I hope you find an answer that best suits your family.

doow said...

I've been brought up as an atheist. My parents were both christened and came from fairly religious families, but decided it wasn't for them. Neither my brother nor I were christened.

I don't remember any specific "this is what happens when you die" conversation, but I've always been fine with the thought that it's probably nothing; it's quite possibly like before conception: you just don't know anything about it. I never felt any lack of comfort from this. I personally don't believe that any of my deceased relatives are wandering around in a place called Heaven, but that's ok, because I keep them safe in my mind.

Guwi said...

I was raised Catholic and my husband was loosely raised as Catholic also. We had a Catholic mass for our wedding ten years ago, chiefly because I wanted to get married in a church, and we had no interesting alternatives at the time. That was about the last time we went to church willingly for about 7 years (barring my son's christening, yes, Catholic, in 2001).

When we wanted to get my daughter christened in 2004, we agonized over it, because for a variety of reasons we had decided to eschew the Catholic church. My son had also started asking questions I was totally unqualified to answer, so we started going church-shopping. We both strongly feel that kids need something, something to cling to and turn to when times get tough. Which inevitably, they do, even for kids.

We found a congregational church(United Church of Christ) in our town, and we started going just for the christening, and thought we'd try it out for awhile. I really love it now, and despite the fact that my husband rarely acknowledges having any spirituality (he agreed to go only for 'the kids') he also is getting something out of it. We have an awesome new minister, who is funny, and groovy, and a musician. He's totally accessible, and the polar opposite of every clergyman I've ever known. He just puts things in perspective and helps you look within for a way to best live your life.

I can honestly say I believe in total freedom of religion--I don't judge people who do things differently than I do--it's whatever floats your boat. If you're not really sure about what you believe, maybe it's not a bad idea to try out one or two places near you that seem to have beliefs somewhat in line with yours. You never know--you might get something out of it.

However, if you choose to live a life without organized religion or specific beliefs in God, I'm sure you can find a way to provide comfort to your children an yourself when you need it. I guess the hard part is figuring out what you need and finding a way to get it while staying true to yourself. Easy, right? :)

Sorry this is so long--spirituality is a complicated thing. :) Best of luck!

Mrs. Chicky said...

I'm another recovering Catholic myself, so I don't think I'll be much help to you. But I too was raised believing there was a heaven and I liked having that comfort. As I grew up and I started to cast aside my beliefs, including heaven, Oz and the Easter Bunny (he's a sham, look it up) I realized that I needed that bit of comfort occasionally. Is it wrong to give our kids that even if we don't believe? I don't think so. It makes them happy now and when they grow up they'll make choices for themselves.

But, boy, do I really miss the Easter Bunny.

mamatulip said...

I didn't have a religious upbringing; it never touched any aspect of my life. When I was young, I didn't really believe in Heaven, because I didn't really know that much about it. I just figured that when people died, their bodies were gone, but their spirits stayed on afterwards, to keep us company -- those of us who were still living.

I guess, in a way, I've maintained that thought my entire life. I'll be the first to admit that I don't know what I believe, and I don't really believe in the idea of Heaven and Hell, but I do find comfort in the belief that the spirits of my loved ones are around me.

When Julia asks about my mother, that is what I tell her, in a loose, roundabout way. I tell her that her Grandmother was very sick and that she died, and that her spirit is with us. I try to put it in three-year-old terms, which is hard, and she does ask questions that I find difficult to answer, like, "What's a spirit, Mummy?" But for me, I find trying to explain what a spirit is to her easier than trying to explain Heaven, I think because I don't know what my own belief of Heaven really is.

I hope this makes sense. Religion and heaven and hell aren't topics I really like to divulge into, because they're not topics I feel I know a lot about.

Mad Hatter said...

My mom died when my twin nephews were 6. They were there when her body was found and were understandably disturbed and intellectually/emotionally curious. We spent a lot of time talking about how grandma was gone and we wouldn't see her again but that she lived in our memories and in our love for her. Trite, I know but sometimes the only thing that can match death's sting is triteness and platitudes.

I had my daughter at 39 and longevity is not a genetic trait. I think about this ALL the time and I still fear the day that my daughter starts asking questions.

virtualredhead said...

John and I were both raised moderately Christian but neither of us practice, nor particularly believe, in religion. God? hmmm. I can't figure out if I beleive but want to pretend I am intellectual and smarter than that, or if I don't beileve but am too wary to say it out loud. How's that for indecisive and a cop out?

Anyhoo, Robbie has run across friends who really, really believe and they have told him, in 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old words, a boatload of shite that I simply do not believe in. "You'll go to hell if..." is a gem he came out of school with last year. Yeah, the religious education will come, even if not from you.

So he's very taken with Jesus/heaven, sort of in the way he's taken with SpongeBob--not part of his daily intake, so he's curious when he gets a glimpse. But we're lucky to have neighbors of different religions, so that's been a great illustration for him. "H believes in Jesus, M does not. See, lots of people think different things."

That said, when two great-grandpas died in two weeks last fall, we hit the "dead" issue head on. We said that some people believe that you go to heaven, and some people believe that your body goes back into the earth. (And my psychic thinks you'll come back again, but I'll save that option until he he's older. ha!) Anyhoo, I told him that when he grows up, he will get to decide what he thinks. We were fortunate, though, to deal with the death of very old people. That Grandpa was very lucky because he got to live a long, long life and lots of people loved him very much. And now he's not sick anymore, and a part of him stays with us forever, etc.

A random thought: we have "some people think" conversations kind of often. Kindergarten introduced MLK day, which forced us to bring the issue of bias into his world. I was angst-ridden over that one for days, let me tell you. "Some people used to think" was how we approached that. Treasure his heart, he simply said, "that's silly." Don't I know it, honey. I'm sad I even have to tell you people can be that ugly.

In other random thoughts, I'd second Guwi's comment about the congregational church/UCC. That's the church I went to as a kid, and I currently have a congregational church as a client. Their theology is exceptionally progressive & all-inclusive. The pastor I work with said that he even questions the existence of God and heaven, if sometimes in an academic way, and focuses more on spirituality and faith. Were I to go to church, I would choose that option.

Anonymous said...

My daughter also went through a phase of death fixation, and we are also of the agnostic / atheist ilk. I told her that when you die it's just really your body that dies, but your soul, the part of you no one can see lives on in everyone you loved. She seemed to buy it for a while, but a few weeks after that she wanted to know where her sould was and if it was in her throat. I think that's a concept you just don't get for a while.

Jess Riley said...

Great post! You and your husband sound alot like me and mine, albeit with reversed roles. Me= recovering Catholic. Him = agnostic/atheist/agnostic.

It seems that people grapple over this issue (faith, religion, etc.) their entire lives. I wish I had a better insight than this; good luck to you and your family on your own journey.

Kelly said...

Wonderful post about the complexities of spirituality. I just wrote a post in a similar vein, though it was more along the lines of 'I can't decide what I friggin' believe in myself, so how can I pass on anything to my kids.'

My eldest is nearly four, and though she knows what it means 'to die,' she has only heard the term applied to animals. But she's in a Christian preschool where they talk about God in a fairly nondenominational way.

One day she came home from school saying, "Mom, God made me. My skin and my face and my head and my arms and legs too!" And when I just looked at her, she added, "Right?" And it was all I could do to stammer out a "right, honey." It wasn't exactly what I wanted to say...

mothergoosemouse said...

My mantra in all such discussions has been "give only the information requested, but above all, DO NOT LIE".

My beliefs are similar to yours, and while I don't want to indoctrinate Tacy into one particular way of thinking, I can't help but answer questions from a scientific perspective rather than one of faith. Likewise, I would expect parents who are devoutly religious to lean the opposite way.

We've kept discussions of death restricted to biology, but spirituality creeps in nonetheless. For our part, we admit that we don't know (hell, no one knows) for sure, but here's what we think, in hopes that our confidence will impart confidence to our children - regardless of what they choose to believe.

And if it helps at all, the idea of Heaven scared the bejesus out of me as a child. You never know.

Fairly Odd Mother said...

I'm a recovering Catholic and husband is an atheist? agnostic? We are Unitarians now which I l-o-v-e b/c it is so open and thoughtful. Kind of the 'live and let live' religion, IMO.

When my oldest (6) asks about different aspects of religion, I tell her what different people believe. She'll then ask me what I believe, and I tell her. Hopefully this won't screw her up too badly, but, really, I'll probably screw her up in so many other ways as well.

mrsmogul said...

My family is Christian but I was never baptized. That's okay I am spiritual anyway. Anyway, my husband's family in england aren't religious either. Hmm, I don;t think anyone there goes to church anymore. They do more in the US!

Sarah said...

What a thoughtful and beautiful post. My daughter will be 3 in May and has the memory of an Elephant. Both of my Grandmothers have died in the last 2 years and my childhood cat has also died this past month. She talks about her grams and now also the cat. Even though I am a Christian and have the whole Heaven/Jesus thing it is never easy to talk about death with a little child. I fear I really botched the whole cat dying thing with my daughter. I think it goes against every fiber in my being to think about death and my sweet daughter in the same moment. I don't want her to know that anything dies. As she gets older and is able to understand more and experiences more meaningful loss to her, I do hope that I can process it all out with her in a way that is truthful, honest, and authentic. Good luck to you as you work your way through with your son.

neva said...

i'm with you, my friend. spiritually, intellectually, and, um... well, that's enough, right? same religious "orientation", same logical conclusion. done deal, one Universe, All as One, and One for All. the end, tap tap, no erasies. (in other words, if you wind up in Hell, you should probably look me up. or down, as the case may be. either way, i'll probably be there, too.) xox