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.