The other night, I was putting my son to bed and he started asking questions about my Grandma. Gram passed away when I was pregnant with my boy, so he never met her, but we talk about her so often it’s like he almost knows her. I like that.
So, as I’m tucking him in and we’re talking about the events of our day (a nightly ritual), he asks where my Grandma is.
“She’s not here, so where is she?”
“Heaven, buddy. She went there before you were born.”
Immediately, I regretted it. I opened that door. He would inevitably start asking questions that I would have to answer, and I wasn’t sure either of us was ready for it. Don’t get all judgy on me; I don’t mind that my kid is asking questions, nor am I afraid to talk about the “touchy” subjects, but you have to understand: he is the most sensitive soul on the planet, and he really internalizes things. His level of empathy trumps most of the grown folks’ I know, and while I am certainly grateful that he is so compassionate, I worry that he takes too much to heart.
The conversation continued.
“Where is heaven?”
“Way up in the sky, past the clouds, sun, and airplanes.”
I did my best not to elaborate unless he specifically requested. Which, of course, he did.
“Like, with the birds?”
“You know how we go to church and learn about Jesus? Well, that’s where Heaven is; where Jesus is.”
Silence. Thoughtful pondering.
“Why did your Grandma go there?”
What’s the opposite of bazinga? Here we go…
“When we get really old or really sick, we go to Heaven.”
And that, my friends, is the part I wish I could take back. When my son gets a cold, is he going to think he’s going to Heaven? When someone in our family has the flu, is he going to think he’ll lose that person? And then he asks:
“Am I going to go away?”
His little lip quivered. Go away. I was actually surprised at the way his question made me feel. My initial reaction was to scream NO! and cover his body with mine because nothing, NOTHING is going to hurt my baby. But that’s just not reality. My heart ached. I immediately thought of all the parents whose babies are already waiting for them in Heaven. So unfair. I wanted to cry. I had to make a decision. What was I willing to tell him? What was he ready for?
“Not any time soon, buddy. You’re young, you’re healthy, and you have nothing to worry about.”
“Are YOU going to go away?”
“Dad and I are young, healthy. Please don’t worry, okay?”
I wanted to end that last sentence with: “I promise,” but you just can’t promise things like that.
One of my favorite actors, James Gandolfini, died yesterday. He was 51-years-young. I realize I didn’t know the guy, but I love his work and my whole family likes to pretend we belong on an episode of The Sopranos. Preferably an episode where no one is getting hacked to bits in the back of Satriale’s. At any rate, I’m super sad about his untimely death, and the irony that my 3-and-a-half-year-old was asking about Heaven the night before isn’t lost on me. Here’s hoping James finds peace, and I get better at having deep conversations with my kids.
Have you had to have “the death talk” with your kids? Help me!
Jill Pinnella Corso says
So sweet! Yet sad. :\ Most adults don’t understand death yet, so how do we expect a 3 year old to?
So true, Jill.
Oh I remember this EXACT conversation with my Brady. Although it started with “Why don’t you have a daddy?” Which made me tear up instantly. He was three-ish when it first came up and he STILL asks lots of questions about heaven. He goes through periods when he asks. A classmate of his lost her father when she was 3 and that brought it back up. Like you, I try to be very honest and sometimes it does scare him. But if it makes you feel any better, the psych book I’m currently working on assures me that children who are taught honestly about death are less scared of death as adults. On a lighter note, my Brady has decided that if God makes heaven awesome that he will be able to wear whatever he wants when he’s there. He has decided to wear a green shirt with blue stripes and 5 buttons with green shiny shorts.
Ohmygoodness kids are FUNNY!! Picking the attire for the afterlife, definitely a plus 😉 Thanks for the info from your psych book; I often wonder how badly I’m screwing up my kids!!!
Jessica Cobb (@DomesticPirate) says
I think you handled it wonderfully.
We’ve been having the death talk since Cabin Girl was about the same age. We passed a cemetery and she asked if she could go play in ‘that’ park. When I gently said it’s not a park for us to play in, she asked what it was for. (Side note: I’m Pagan, Captain is Agnostic, but we’re both from Christian/Catholic families, so we try to explain things that will encompass our beliefs and leave room for the understanding of others’. Acceptance of differences is incredibly important in our house.) I told her that when our bodies get too old, really sick, or hurt too badly they stop working, so our bodies are put in places like that park, where people who love us can quietly come to remember us. Both of Captain’s Grandpas died in the past 2 years, and as a 5/6 year old, she had more questions involving Grandma’s God and Heaven, and we just gently explained that where I believe the part of our body that thinks and loves goes into the world to become part of the things and places it loved, some people believe it goes to a place far beyond where we can see to live with God.
In all honesty, the Lion King is great for explaining the cycle of life to young kids (as cliche as it sounds), and allows an approach that acknowledges the sadness of a passing loved one, but shows that it is one of the most natural things to ever occur (not talking about Scar tossing Mufasa off a cliff; just Mufasa’s discussion with Simba). My daughter is analytical enough to understand what I mean when I explain that if nothing ever died, there would be no room for new life and the world would become a crazy place.
Jessica, you’re totally right about The Lion King!! I’m going to break that puppy out the next time my kiddo asks about the cycle of life 😉 Thanks!
As for your varying beliefs, I think it’s awesome that they all co-exist under one roof (or in the same family), and you guys respect one another’s values. I wish more people could do that in the real world!!!!!
Thanks for weighing in, lady!! xo
Chris Carter says
Oh those are such difficult conversations to have with such a sensitive soul as your precious baby boy!!!! You did good mama!!! Perhaps you can put a postiive spin on it too…to relieve is anxiety about where “away” is and what that looks like. The unknown is scary to us ALL.
You could tell him how Heaven is BEAUTIFUL and there is dancing and singing and lo…vely amazing colors and it is the happiest place to be! You can then say that Grandma is SO happy right now, even though she wishes she could see him here on earth. BUT they will have FOREVER and EVER to play together in Heaven.
Heaven is the GREATEST party to go to…. when it’s time. So no fears. No worries. You can tell him that all of his favorite things will be there! It’s so special, we don’t even know how good it is!! God has a plan for his sweet life- he can pray to God if he needs to for assurance. I also bet there are some great books to read at that age too! I’m not sure Heaven Is For Real (kid version) could be a resource. I read the adult version to my 4-6 graders last summer during sunday school. One of my students was terrified of dying… she now carries that book around and has a completely different view of death. (fyi)
My daughter is super sensitive too… and she has evolved in knowing that Heaven is so remarkable, that it’s okay to even think about it- much less have to worry about it.
Great point Chris!!! I’ll keep that in mind for the next time. My emotions got the best of me and I think I was on the defense a bit. Thanks lady!
Mom Rants and Comfy Pants says
I think you handled it well Stephanie. We’re never fully prepared when those questions come, but you handled it honestly, compassionately and in a way that his mind could process. Good for you!
Thanks Penny 🙂 means a lot coming from you. Xo
Jumpin' Jack Flash says
When unsure of what to say to anyone at anytime about anything…it seems the best way to go is with the honest truth. You did fine!
Thank you kind sir.
Sarah @ LeftBrainBuddha says
I think you handled it as well as any of us can… We can’t promise them that nothing will happen to them, or to us, but we can reassure them that we are healthy, they are healthy, and we take care of ourselves. I think that’s the best we can do.
Thanks so much, Sarah! I definitely didn’t want to make ANY promises, so I did my best. And excellent point to take care of ourselves, especially when we have kids. Means so much more now than just going to the gym to look hot at Happy Hour!
I’ve had to have the death and heaven conversation with my daughter twice now. Once when one of her twin cousins died at 1 month old (she never met her) and the next time a year later when her 11 year old cousin died of a rare brain tumor. She of course didn’t get any of the details or their illnesses, but I still struggled with what exactly to tell her. I, like you, didn’t want her to think every time someone got sick they were in danger of dying. I told her that sometimes people get so sick that the dr’s can’t help them, but that is not very often. I told her they are in heaven, and she didn’t ask too many quetions, thankfully. We are not churchgoers, so the “they are with Jesus” would just bring up too many other questions.
At 4 years old now she still can’t grasp the concept and death and talks about how she is going to become a doctor and go get her cousins and make them better. She will sometimes get concerned that they are not getting lucnh or able to watch their favorite shows or go swimming.
Today is her cousins birthday- he would have been 12- and we will be celebrating by having his favorite chocolate chip cookies. She said she’s going to save one for him. 🙂
Oh Christie 🙁 🙁 Talking about and dealing with the death of a child just takes this to a whole new level. My heart goes out to your family today–I’m sure your daughter’s cousin would have loved that chocolate chip cookie. Hugs!
Jenn @ Something Clever 2.0 says
That’s some rough stuff. I just did The Death Talk (and posted about it) a couple months ago, but we’re atheists, so it probably won’t be of much help to you. I’m sorry.
I remember reading your post, Jenn. Death is death, and talking about it with little ones is tough regardless of our beliefs. I appreciate that there are so many different belief systems commenting on this post, but the one thing that unites us the fact that we’re all humans and not close-minded assholes. So, that was off-topic, but thanks 🙂
Dani Ryan says
Man, that sucks. I am not looking forward to these types of conversations with my little girl. But you handled it like a pro. Nicely done!
And I loved JG as well. Such a shock!!! 🙁
Thanks, Dani. Here’s hoping your convo is waaaaay in the future!
Ugh! I tried three times yesterday to comment via my phone and couldn’t! So, I’m back today on my laptop. Hold your applause! This post hit close to home for me because my little guy is also very sensitive. We’ve had complete meltdowns because I answered honestly when he asked if his skin will get wrinkled when he gets old or if his voice will change. He also worries that since he’s the youngest in the family, he will be left all alone when the rest of us die. It breaks my heart to hear him express this fears, yet I’m glad he does so I can comfort him the best way I know how. You handled it beautifully my friend! File in your Mom of the Year application and I’ll write a reference to include too! 😉 BTW, what happened to your brother’s blog? Tell him people are gaining weight all across America because he’s no longer inspiring us!
that’s a tough question, oh boy. I had to deal with death when a character died in a movie…I should have watched it first. Anyway, he handled death and heaven well, except when I said it was so hot I was dying…he was pretty freaked out…LESSON LEARNED MOMMY
Our preschooler has asked questions like this before, and it’s always hard! He loves to focus on the part about meeting Jesus in Heaven, so we’ve got that element of sweetness, but it’s still such a hard convo to have! Sounds like you did a great job, Steph!
What a tough, tough topic and I think you handled it so well. Their innocent little minds can ask the most pure questions that just shoot right through you (my son, “didn’t she go to the doctor, Mommy?” in reference to my mom who has died). Anyway, it’s so weird to discuss, but props to you, Momma, for handling it as gracefully as possible!
Awww your poor little guy 🙁 That’s the thing: I don’t want to scar them for life with my answers, so I appreciate your props!