October 17, 2010

No Messing With Heaven

First, let me say that I know from tough questions bubbling up from the back seat. I have already handled, on previous occasions, the question of what war is, an explanation of gay marriage and, regarding racial discrimination, "but that was all a long time ago, right?" And I have fielded, also while driving, a lengthy discussion among all four kids regarding why and how my youngest son, then three, could indeed "get a baby" if he chose to marry his best friend Trevor. I've always known the big conversations take place in the car. I hadn't realized it started this young, but I'm always happy to talk.

So when the highest-pitched voice in the back seat demanded to know where we go when we die as we cruised down Route 10, about 15 minutes from home, I was ready to answer. I'm always ready. It was the anniversary of 9/11, and I was already in the middle of a tough conversation with her oldest brother, so 5-year-old Rory's query actually came as a relief. I may not have a great answer to that one, but at least I've answered it before.

But then her four-year-old brother Wyatt responded, quite cheerfully and confidently. "To Heaven."

I know that's the standard line re: the afterlife. "To heaven" is actually, in its own way, the perfect answer/non-answer for young kids, because after all, heaven—what's heaven? It can mean that you sit at the right hand of God, or that your soul is granted or otherwise experiences eternal rest, or peace. It can mean fluffy clouds or virgins and cheeseburgers. It can mean "I know, absolutely," or it can mean "I really don't know, but whatever it is, I'm confident that it's a good thing." It's nicely definitive without really defining anything, and the child can, one supposes, take it from there.

But that's not really what we do in our family. (Well, it's not really what I do. My husband turns up the radio.) No, with the exception of Santa Claus, I go in for the absolute truth, even if the absolute truth is really nothing more than an absolute uncertainty. If I don't know, I say I don't know. And I don't know about "heaven." I only wish I did. (I know that in this, or at least in my rejection of the word, I differ from most of my fellow NHBO bloggers. I can only say I hope you'll accept my extremely respectful struggle with what it means to believe, and in what. I have faith, and although I tend to express it differently I've found that there are fewer fundamental differences than first appear from either side.)

According to the experts consulted by Bruce Feiler for his column in the New York Times this past weekend, I'm exactly right. "If you want to share with your kids your deepest beliefs," Rabbi David Wolfe, author of "Teaching Your Children About God," told Feiler. "your deepest beliefs are not about shopping. They're about what happens after you die, or what life is about." Feiler's daughter asked "if I speak to God, will he listen?" Felier doesn't say, but I imagine him thinking, well, define God. Define speak. Define listen. After all, an honest answer to that question would require an agreement on those things, just as an honest answer to question of an afterlife can't turn on a pleasantly hazy "heaven."

I reject the literal "heaven," the one with the the clouds (and the virgins and the cheeseburgers). I don't doubt that something happens to you when you die, but the literal vision that the word "heaven" conjures up for me isn't one I want my kids to think I endorse. I still remember a character in a book I read as a child, who'd been told by the preacher that heaven was "up there" at a wake and subsequently believed it to be located in "Simon Fletcher's garret." I shy away from the word heaven because others have invested it with characteristics I don't accept, and because when one of my kids drops it into conversation, I know it hasn't come from me—so I don't know what it means. My response has always been something along the lines of "I'm not sure, but even when your body dies, the part of you that's important stays with the people you love somehow." I've modified that for the occasion, even to being very specific in promising the child whose grandfather's funeral left him with a fear of being left "down in the dirt" that no matter what happens, I will never, ever leave him—but I've never pretended to believe that death offers some sort of actual destination. Therefore, no "heaven."

I had not, however, reckoned with Rory. We adopted Rory at almost four, and she had a life and a family before she shared ours. When I contradicted Wyatt, however mildly, (I said something like "I don't really believe that. I don't think there's really a place you 'go.' I think your body is gone, and the part of you that thinks and loves and is you kind of stays in the memories of the people you love") Rory became hysterical. She started to cry. "But where you GO?" she demanded, and I kind of repeated that I didn't think you really "go" anywhere, and she said I didn't understand, didn't understand what she was saying, wasn't listening, because "WHERE YOU GO?"

By the time we got home she was screaming and sobbing, deeply embroiled her own unique version of a grief-stricken temper tantrum. It took me at least half an hour to calm her down. But—stupidly— less than a week later I did it again. She brought it up this time, asking about a dog we had before she arrived, a dog she knew had died. "But where she go?" Rory demanded. I coughed up the same idea, about how even though her body was gone, she was still here, because we remembered her...and it started again. Rory was hysterical within seconds. "But where she GO? You not listening me. Where she GO?" It didn't matter what I said by then. Rory, at least, was gone already.

It was like a return to the first days after Rory came home with us from China, when Rory fought a hundred screaming battles with me and with herself from that car seat. Her grief and misery was beyond her ability to control it. This wasn't petty, and it wasn't one of Rory's convenient ploys for attention (when another child has my focus, Rory's been known to tap me on the arm and announce "I want go back China.") Whatever was happening to Rory was coming from somewhere inside her we hadn't been, and it wasn't about whether I was listening to her. Or maybe it was.

I know Rory's foster family, and I know something of the history of the three-plus years she spent with them. They are American evangelical Christians with a fundamental belief in God and in Christ that obviously goes far beyond lip service. They act on their faith every day. They work with the orphanages in their region and take in kids who aren't thriving, which sometimes means kids like my daughter, who need their help to heal, but also means kids whom no love can heal. I know children died in her foster home while Rory was there. I don't know where those children went when they died, any more than I know what happened to the souls or spirits of the victims of 9/11. But I begin to suspect that Rory thinks she knows, and that whatever she knows, or believes, is far, far more important to her than the truth of ambiguity is to me.

And I don't think I need to mess with that.

So when this comes up again—and it will—I'll put a whole lot less emphasis on sharing my own doubts and beliefs, and try to give Rory room to share hers. "Where do you think they go?" I'll ask, and if she can't answer, I'll meet her more than half way. Does she think they go to heaven? Does she believe they're happy there? Are they with God? Whatever she says, I'm there with it. I may mentally cross my fingers, or place my own meaning on the words, but I won't insist that she understand my doubt. Whatever she believes, I plan to embrace.

Another expert Feiler consulted rejects that course. "You're lying to your children," John Patrick Shanley, Pulitzer-prize winning author of the play "Doubt" says of professing a definitive belief you don't share, "and one day they're going to realize that you were a hypocrite." Until now, I've shared that view. I don't want my kids to wake up at ten, or fifteen, or fifty, and realize that I lied to them! That would be awful! What would they think of me? I can't help but notice, as I think that through, that there's an awful lot of "I" and "me" in those worries, and not a whole lot of anyone else.

If I accept Rory's view of the afterlife, will she wake up one day and realize that I was a hypocrite? I hope so. I hope, of course, that she'll forgive me for it—that she, or one of her brothers or her sister, will remember how much it meant to her as a child that whatever she'd already learned about death not be torn away from her along with everything else. I hope she'll understand. But if all I get out of abandoning principle is is an eventual quiet ride home, I can live with that. It turns out that my deepest beliefs aren't about what happens when we die, or even what life is all about. My deepest belief is in my love for Rory (and all of my children). If that means I let a couple of other beliefs lie, so be it. I will set aside ambiguity, I will embrace the appearance of certainty, and I will even—so help me, I'm only going to do this once—I will even stop the car.

KJ Dell'Antonia, aka Lola Granola, blogs about bonds, balance and blend at RaisingDevils.com. You'll also find her column in Kiwi magazine, and her views on the intersection of women, parenting and culture at Slate's XXFactor blog.


  1. ok, don't get me wrong but isn't this blog about special needs?? And, in denying your daughter's belief's aren't you forcing yours on her?

  2. The good news is we CAN be sure of where we go in the 'afterlife.' Without the hope of Christ, there is no hope at all. But He is the Redemption, and because of His death and resurrection we no longer have to wonder what happens when we die, once we have a relationship with Him. And that is absolute Truth.

  3. Of course a parent has the right to guide a child's religious belief system. I suspect in this story, however, that Rory's difficulty is less about a clash of beliefs and more about Rory's developmental stage and her conflict with loss. Preschoolers are concrete thinkers and many cant entertain this type of abstraction. Rory tries to pin it down- where do we GO? She cant conceive her body separating from her "soul"- the idea of living on in people's memories. Neurodevelopmentally children cant do this yet- even if you think they are accepting the answer, internally they are making the concept more concrete. So I wouldn't worry about "lying" because their thinking changes as they grow older anyway, these conversations are rehashed in new ways. THEN, of course, Rory has a whole lot of conflict around loss anyway, doesnt she? If she doesn't GO anywhere, that would mean she is LOST. again. This is way too scary of an idea. Sounds like Rory is still processing where she IS and where she has BEEN- and the idea of going nowhere (remember that concrete thinking) is just too much.

  4. I agree with Connie. It is quite a burden to go through this life never being sure of anything. Search for truth; find what you are sure of. Don't settle for the ambiguity of simply saying, "well, I just can't be sure." I think you owe that to your little "black & white" thinker there. I hope you find Truth in your search for answers.

  5. It seems like Connie is simply preaching to the author to adopt Christian beliefs. It seems clear that Rory's mom does not hold these beliefs as is her right. I was suggesting that mom can focus on reassuring her daughter along the lines of "I will always be with you and you with me no matter what" (whether in "Heaven" or in "memory", this is true). "Being with" will be a concrete idea for Rory at first but then gradually it can become more abstract as she develops.

  6. I actually do believe in lying to my children from time to time. I don't look at it as a bad thing though if it is preserving their feelings, their faith, or their happiness. Santa is a good example of this, and you made reference that you too do that one. I have yet to meet a child that grows up angry at a parent about it. It brings the child joy.
    If Rory needs to hear some confirmation from you about something she was taught in her most formative years, then maybe a good way to answer would be to ask her to tell you what she believes heaven is....then tell her how wonderful it sounds. At least this way, you're giving some validity to her beliefs and letting her stay grounded in something that obviously has been made important in her mind. If it comforts her to believe that a person, or a dog, goes to heaven...then it's worth the "lie".
    This all said, I personally believe with every part of me that we go to a place where we will be with God and past loved ones for eternity. I talk to my kids about that. I think it's comforting, when you do lose someone, to know that they are in a better place, and I think it sure makes our life of heartaches and learning through faith a journey worth taking.

  7. I find this post interesting and sad. On the "About" page of NHBO, the mission of the site is clearly to reflect Christ in all we do ... including advocating for waiting children in China.

    I agree with others who've said believe in something. If you search Lola, I believe with all my heart that you will find God. His Word does not return void; I'd love to send you a copy of the Bible if you don't have one and are interested.

    cljjs (at) yahoo (dot) com

    Thank you though for posting your thoughts. I admire your courage in sharing from such a deep place spiritually and emotionally.

  8. "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn is a great book.

    Sounds like there are a range of beliefs.

    I will never forget the look on my 10 month old adopted daughter from China's face when I told her that Jesus loved her. She knew him because I believe he held her closely in those early days and months of her life.

    Could it be that a child is more acquainted with our Heavenly Father from whom he/she came than we who have had many years of separation?

    Appreciate your candidness, encouraged by your willingness to not challenge your daughter's belief, hopeful for you.

    May God bless the heart you have as a mother.