My daughter Grace was almost three years old when I found myself trying to explain death to her. Of course she knew that things die. We had buried a bird in the backyard and we talked about how Jane the cat, who was 20 years old, would be going soon. But explaining the death of a new sister she was expecting was another story.
Our second child, Keirnan, was still born at 28 weeks. Grace was just two and a half. We grieved as a family, holding small ceremonies by the fireplace because we needed a way to acknowledge our daughter Keirnan and our common sorrow. We talked openly with Grace about what happened because it felt right to us. We avoided euphemisms because we wanted her to understand that her sister was not coming back. And for a long time she didn’t ask us questions. Instead, she would repeat the things we told her: The baby died. Mommy is not pregnant anymore. The baby was already dead when she was born. When she echoed our blunt explanations it was a little startling.
A few months later, Grace did finally start asking questions. One afternoon as I was putting her down for a nap she had a string of them.
“Where did Keirnan go?”
I had wondered if she would ever ask this question but that didn’t mean I was ready for it. “You mean when she died, where did her body go?”
Grace paused and gave me a confused look. “Her body?”
Her question made it clear that for Grace, Keirnan was not just a body. She was asking about her soul.
I forged ahead, unsure where I would end up:
“So people are really two things, right? A body, and a soul. Kiernan’s body stopped working, and that means she died. When people die we can choose if we want to bury their body in the ground, or we can have the body cremated into ashes….” I continued to ramble about the mechanics of death and what happens to our bodies until I realized she had no idea what I was talking about.
She stared blankly at me, waiting.
“People also have a soul. And when they die, I guess that must go somewhere else.”
“Where?” She asked, her eyes wide. “The sky??”
Again I was faced with a choice. I didn’t want to feed her a religious belief system because I don’t adhere to one. Nor did I want to tell her there is nothing else, because I am not an atheist either. I wanted to give her the reassurance of a spiritual dimension to life, because when I was growing up we never talked about anything like that and I later felt that if we had, it might have helped me understand death better, and cope.
When I was four years old I was curious about God. We did not attend church except on Christmas Eve, so I asked my mother.
“Yes, Annie?” She was putting clean underwear into her dresser drawer.
“What is God?”
“God is a spirit.” She didn’t look down at me. She just shut the drawer and left the room.
I must have been staring at her left hand when she said the word “spirit” because for a long time, I imagined God as a giant gold ring, floating up in the sky. I don’t think my mother believed in God and that was as close as I came to asking her. She did not say anything about the sky or heaven to me, just as I had never put those images in Grace’s head. To my knowledge Grace had not been exposed to religious imagery in her short life, and yet she too was happy to imagine spirits floating up in the sky.
I had no intention of side-stepping Grace’s questions. I tried answering her honestly, without telling her anything I don’t believe myself. I said, “Grace, no one knows where a soul goes after you die. No one knows, so I don’t know. But if you like, you can imagine it goes up into the sky where all the clouds and the stars are.”
“Can I talk to her?” She was already happily placing Keirnan up in the sky.
I paused again, but because of the many conversations I have had with my deceased mother over the years, I said, “Yes, you can talk to her.” Then I surprised myself by adding, “I am sure she will listen.”
Grace crawled into my lap.
“Will you die?”
“Yes, but I hope it will happen a long time from now. When you are all grown up.”
“What if you die now?” she asked sounding more curious than worried.
Because my mother died at a young age I never wanted to promise Grace I wouldn’t die. And looking at her I could see she wasn’t frightened by the conversation. I continued to be as honest with her as I could be.
“If for some reason I died, I would always be with you in your heart.”
“Well, you know how much I love you right?”
“I love you as much as you love me, and you can feel that, right?”
“Right,” she said, smiling.
“So all that love is in your heart right now. We are connected through our hearts and we always will be.”
“But can love die?”
“No, love doesn’t die. That’s the good thing. Even if I die, you will always have my love in your heart.”
We both found this conversation comforting and we still have it sometimes. Not because either of us is afraid I will die. But because it reminds us of where we are now.