While I was working on the promised post about why it's important to share your beliefs with your children, I realized that I truly wanted, needed, to write about something else. Something heavier. Jump in with both feet, right?
T.S. and I have both written something for you on this topic, and we'll be sure to touch on it again. So, bonus, you get two posts this week!
So here it is: Talking to children about death and after.
My son's first experience with death (when he was old enough to really know what was going on) was the death of my father in 2012.
My father had been diagnosed with a form of brain cancer before I became pregnant with my son. He always knew that "papa was sick" and that he wasn't going to live forever. My kidlet had so many questions. He wanted to know why Papa couldn't walk by himself, why Papa couldn't play with him on the floor, and eventually, why Papa couldn't talk. These were the easy questions. I could always answer with, "It's because of the sickness, honey." And then we would talk about the brain and how important it is. (Everything is a learning opportunity, right?)
After he passed, there were more questions. Questions that I was happy to answer, but as this is my first time parenting, I had much to learn and definitely stumbled a bit!
After the first night of viewing, I took the opportunity to talk to my son about what I believe happens to a person when they die. I told him, in the simplest terms I could think of, "Mommy believes that a person's soul, who they are, they're essence, will come back in another body. He got really excited, smiled really big, and responded, "Mom! When I die, I want to be a puppy!"
An adorable answer, but one that made me realize that this was going to be a rough thing to explain.
I grew up in a Christian household. We had a book that told us everything about what to believe happens to people when they died. There were two options: heaven or hell. My parents taught me this from a young age, and when I had questions, they would reference the family Bible, and give me the answer from the book.
I don't have that. There is no book that tells me what I believe. There are no written guidelines, no large tome of answers to reference. I believe from the heart, from the soul. I believe what my soul says is the right belief for me. But I digress.
The point is, that I had nothing to refer to in order to help me explain this to my child. I couldn't even call on my experience in being parented, as I so often do in parenting situations. I call it my WWMD (What Would Mom Do?), but that wasn't going to help me here.
I had always made a point to not have to explain my beliefs to anyone. I took the very defiant stand point of, "Don't question me! I believe what I believe!" Maybe it was a product of growing up in a household so opposed, and at times judgmental, to my current spirituality. But I can't do that with my child. No, he needs answers, he deserves an explanation of what Mommy believes.
So, occasionally, on a night when he's remembering his Papa, when someone he knows and loves dies, or just when he's thinking his deep, curious child thoughts, he asks me the tough questions and I answer him, as best I can. Here are 5 questions he has asked and how I've answer them.
1. Mom, Avery said that when you die you go to heaven. Why isn't that what you believe?
My response: "Lots of people believe many things about what happens after you die. The truth is, that no one really knows for sure. Some people believe in heaven, some people believe in in Valhalla, and some in the Summerlands. Mommy's beliefs are what she thinks is the right answer for her." This typically leads into an explanation of each of those beliefs and always ends with, "you can believe whatever you want."
2. Mom, when I come back into another body, can I be whatever I want to be? Can I be a bug? How about a car? Oh! I want to come back as a lion!
My response: "Sweetheart, we don't get to choose what we come back as. But what would life be like as a bug? or a lion?"
3. Mom, it's OK that Papa died. He will find us when he comes back, right?
My response: "Mommy does believe that souls will find each other again. It's absolutely possible that we will find each other again."
5. Right! He will find us because he will remember what we look like!
My response: "Well, pumpkin, Papa will most likely not remember who we are or what we look like. When you're reborn, you don't carry a lot of memories with you. Do you remember when you were born? As a new baby you didn't have many memories and your memories of your pasts lives are hidden." This typically starts a conversation about how some people can remember their past lives and some can't.
6. Mom, maybe Papa is sad because we can't find him right now. Can we go look for him?
My response: "We wouldn't recognize him, honey, he's starting life over again in a new body. We have no way of knowing what he looks like this time around."
Of course, a lot of these answers do leave out some detail, but I find that it's best, at least for this age, to make things as easy to understand and as simple as possible.
Death is a transition, not only for the soul who has passed, but for all those who love that person. Sometimes, when we're caught up in our own grief, we can forget that our little ones are grieving too, even if they look as if they don't even notice. Here is a ritual you can perform with the whole family to help facilitate this transition. Who knows, maybe you'll get asked some good questions too.
This might help you little one feel more included and possibly find some solace.
Parental supervision strongly recommended.
Photo of the loved one who passed
Gather some items that represent your loved one
Candles and incense (optional)
Flower seeds or a sapling
Planting Pot (if it is winter or fall)
Set up expectations. I always think that it's important to talk to children about what is acceptable and not acceptable when it comes to emotional settings like this. Most importantly, I think it's good to express to the whole family that it is absolutely all right to cry and feel sad during a ritual like this. Let everyone know that it's all right to cuddle, to hold hands, and that if it is their turn to talk, they don't have to. I know that this sounds very common sense, but I've found that sometimes children are intimidated by the "specialness" of a ritual and might forget that those things apply here.
Gather all of your items. Place them on your altar, even the pen, paper, and seeds/sapling, in whatever way feels best for you and your family. Include your child in this activity and allow them to place some of the items. Many of these items, the picture, the candles, the items that represent your loved one, are to help bring your focus on your loved one.
Begin the ritual in the way that suit's your family's practice (eg: casting a circle, asking spirits and ancestors to attend, etc.).
Light the candles and incense. Allow your family to sit in silence for a few moments, remembering your loved one.
Starting with the youngest person, ask everyone to describe your loved one. How did they make you feel? What were their best and most endearing qualities? Write all of these things down on a piece of paper. Keep going until everyone has said everything they need to say.
Fold the piece of paper and place it in the envelope. Pass the envelope around to each family member. Whomever is holding the envelope gets to tell their favorite story about your loved one. Pass the envelope around until everyone has told at least one story. There's no limit here, let everyone express what they need to. When everyone is done telling stories, and this might take a while, move on to Step 7.
If it is spring or summer, carry the seeds/sapling and the envelope outside. Dig a hole and place the envelope at the bottom. Plant the seeds/sapling on top of the envelope.
If it is winter or fall, place the seeds/sapling together, use a pot to plant indoors until the weather warms up.
End the ritual as you see fit. You might want to ask your deities to bless the seeds and envelope, you might want to ask for easy passage for your loved one. Do what is right for you and your family. I would like to suggest ending the ritual with some family hugs.
Losing a loved one is never easy for anyone. Be kind to yourself as a person and as a parent.