by Jackie Brown
“Am I going to die someday, Mom?!”
I will never forget when my older son, now seven, not only grasped the concept of death but applied it to himself in the same day.
“Yes,” I leveled with him, “all living things eventually die.”
The waterfall of tears started immediately as he panicked and pleaded with his father and I, saying that he didn’t want to die.
“It’s okay, son. When you die, you go to Heaven.” It would have been such an easy “out,” wouldn’t it? I get why people use it as an explanation. I get why people buy into it.
Even as a 33-year-old, death can scare me silly if I think about it too much. Every once in awhile I do, and I find myself on the verge of a panic attack. I think, “Oh my gosh, I could go…at any minute…gone forever!” Then, I come to my senses and take comfort in the idea that I’m a relatively healthy adult with a strong sense of self-preservation; I’m probably going to live a long time. Sometimes I fantasize about being that crabby elderly atheist lady to whom no one can say anything because no one argues with the elderly; they’ve simply had too much time on earth not to respect their “rank”.
So, we didn’t tell that lie to our son. We didn’t tell him that he’s going to Heaven. When someone did tell him that lie, we told him that we didn’t believe in it. We believe that when you die, you die. That’s why it’s so important to be good while you’re here; you only get one shot!
“But, when you die, eventually your body goes back into the soil,” we told him, “and parts of you get to be a part of something else in nature again someday. So, a part of you will always exist.” That seems far more beautiful to me than a bunch of rules or having to profess your love for some god, and profess a love stronger than any love you feel for anyone else.
My progressive Christian friends really like to tout the “God is Love” phrase, and I get why that is. No one wants to be told they’re going to Hell. Few Christians even want to think or be reminded of the wrath of the Old Testament god, but there are some who will tell their children about that jealous, needy god. My parents told me about him, and it scared me senseless!
Well into adulthood I still clung to religion and the hope that there was a god because I was so fearful of a devil who wanted my soul and demons who I was convinced wanted to possess me as was explained to me when I was a child. I can’t really say that I ever believed in a god. My parents and the churches they took me to really tried to convince me. There were people “speaking in tongues” and people so “filled with the spirit” that they would run around the sanctuary. Now I think many of those people just so desperately wanted to believe that they subconsciously prompted themselves to do that, and then there were some who purposely deceived.
But it brings me to my point in this story. Such a wonderful story was perpetrated to convince me that good and evil forces were in a grand fight for my soul! What a horrible, horrible lesson for a child. To me, it is tantamount to abuse to convince or even just to tell a child that if she doesn’t pander to the good side enough, the evil side will win and consequently may win her soul.
So, in our discomfort, sitting there with our sobbing son in his discomfort, we were honest with him. We told him that he will someday die and that will be that. We told him this is what we believe and that other people have other thoughts on the matter (reincarnation, among the plethora of other ideas, can be saved for a later date). We sat in our discomfort and his, and we allowed his sorrow.
We allowed him to experience the range of emotions because “Heaven” may be an easy out, but its partner “Hell” is a concept that will be far more damaging in the long run than the thought of someday no longer walking on this earth.
He cried, and then he laughed. And then he cried again. And we just assured him it would be okay, and we told him that he would most likely live a long and wonderful life. We were honest with him, and I am sure someday he will appreciate us for it.
I am sure we have already laid the foundation for a relationship built on trust rather than fear. I give this to my children willingly, without fear, and with the knowledge that it may not always be comfortable. I give it to them despite the potential heartache. I give it to them despite the potential for unanswerable questions.
I give them the truth because it was not given to me.
I was not allowed to make up my own mind, but my children will always be given that right and provided with an environment, in which to make those decisions, without coercion or fear.