Not talking to my kids about heaven

by Kristin on September 21, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Andreia

Last night I had to share some very sad news with my girls: Our friend Maricela died of cancer.

Maricela intersected with our lives in many ways. We first met her and her two daughters at the church we went to when we first moved here in 2001; for about a year, I often gave them a ride to church, since Maricela didn’t have a car. Her younger daughter, Celeste, was in my daughter’s kindergarten and fourth grade classes, and last year, as fifth graders, they shared a table at math. Maricela also taught the native Spanish speakers at my girls’ elementary school, spending part of every day last year in my younger daughter’s third grade classroom last year.

News about cancer stealing life from anyone you care about is hard to take. When you have to figure out how to share that news with your children, it seems impossible.

Coming to terms with my very real feelings about heaven

I found out that Maricela died Saturday morning, and spent a lot of time Saturday processing waves of sadness and thinking about how and when to tell my girls, who were at their dad’s house for the weekend. I had a natural desire to not cry in front of my kids—they’ve certainly seen me cry, plenty, but I wanted them to feel what they felt and not take cues from me. I also had that mama bear urge to protect them, and make everything OK. But how can it be OK?

As I sorted through all these thoughts in my mind, I considered the nice, neat sentiments Christians have responded to death with for ages: Maricela is with God, in heaven. She’s not in pain anymore, and she’s with other people she loves who died before her.

While I believe this—I believe that when we die we don’t just rot in the ground, that in some sense we join God in a perfect place, and that Maricela is there—I have never been able to take comfort from this belief. This is hard for me to admit, but it’s true. Believing in some sort of heaven doesn’t make me feel better at moments like this, and I couldn’t imagine telling my kids that, in hopes of making them feel better. It’s too abstract, and doesn’t seem to fully take into account the very real, earthly pain that comes with a death like this.

It also doesn’t address the day-to-day emotional needs of Maricela’s two young daughters, whose extended family lives in Mexico and whose dad has not been a part of their lives for several years. The ache I feel for them is almost too much to bear, and I could see that compassion registering in my daughters’ eyes as I talked to them last night. Believing in heaven seems almost irrelevant.

Recognizing what I do believe, and hanging on

This experience has made me face these issues in ways I haven’t quite had to, before. And in the midst of all the doubt and confusion and sadness, I am able to grab onto something very solid that I do believe: I believe that God can comfort and protect Maricela’s daughters in ways we can’t humanly begin to comprehend. Also, I believe that if I pray for them, and if my girls pray for them too, it will make a difference. I don’t know how I know that, I just really really do. And for now, I’m clinging to that belief.

My daughter and Maricela’s daughter on a kindergarden field trip (both on the far left of photo).

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  • http://www.jenx67.com jenx67

    i wrote something so similar to this in perspective, kristin. i just didn’t have the heart to publish it. it’s a post called are you there, God? it’s me, annie. (as in annie le.) i’m left feeling sad and heavy – what will happen to the girls? nothing can replace a mother’s love, and all any of us can do in a time like this is pray for supernatural intervention from God. I know He will intervene. Like you, I don’t know how – or why – I just know. And, I cling to that. You always provide such provocative posts, KT. I really like it.

  • http://www.blackwasp19.wordpress.com Blackwasp19

    Death should be hard. Mourning is undervalued in our age and culture maybe because we belittle death.
    Yes, as a Christian there is something beyond rotting in the ground, but the hard reality is that person, that life is no longer there. The joys of stupid jokes from that person aren’t there, the entertainment of watching friends wince at that person’s awkward moments is not there, the late night conversations is not there, the feel of skin against yours as you embrace your friend is not there. The person is not there; a portion of one’s community is gone. Death, even if merely physical and temporary for the Christian, is the opposite of what God ultimately desires thus, it should causes us pain , draw tears from our eyes and simply feel wrong.

    It perhaps in that feeling of disarray and frustration that I find I must turn to a God who shares in my mourning and has the power to bring redemption, even to death. My joy then is not so much in the fact that my Christian loved ones are in heaven – a theologically complex issue- but that my God is bigger than death.

    Although I neither knew Maricela nor am physically present with you, know that as your brother, a piece of my hearts mourns with you.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    jenx67, thanks for saying that you find my posts provocative. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing stuff that will end up turning everyone off—it’s too “religious” for non-religious people, and has too much doubt for people who believe. (I guess this is a big part of the whole Halfway to Normal concept, eh?)

    Blackwasp19, I really appreciate the way you wrote about death here—that it *should* be hard. I often feel guilty for not being able to say or embrace those things that we’ve been told are a part of our Christian culture (ie: Jesus called her home, it was her time to go, she’s joyfully singing with the angels, etc.). You’re absolutely right—the joy and comfort we claim is not in heaven, specifically, but in a God that’s able to redeem even something as horrible as death. Thanks for sharing a new way to think about that, and for mourning with me.

  • http://www.sundayschoolrebel.typepad.com Sam

    O Death where is thy sting…we feel it. I think it’s completely okay and wonderfully honest to admit that while we do take hope in knowing that death is not the end of our story, it doesn’t mean we’re happy to send a loved one off into the unknown. Surely God understand this of us. I read recently (Lauren Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath) that there’s this beautiful Jewish tradition of a mourning process – the person is given a whole year to move through their grief. Not that grief is over in a year, but I wonder how much better it is than trying to motor through Normal Life when you’ve lost someone you love.

    Another thing I read, a long time ago, was something that Catherine Marshall wrote. Her husband died unexpectedly and soon after she had a dream of him, working in a rose garden. She got the sense that he was trying to acclimate himself to this new place of heaven – and I really love that idea. A sort of inbetween place to let go of your human self, if need be, in order to make the transition to whatever glory there is for us with God. It must hurt to think that your loved one has moved on without you, that there’s this one sided missing for those who are left behind.

    And I, too, believe wholeheartedly in the power of prayer, and that God will provide comfort for these little girls. It’s still so sad and unfair, though.

  • http://www.orangeshirtguy.com Dave Thurston

    You know, how does one comment on something that pulls so strongly on one’s heart without sounding controlling or aloof.

    The two daughters are the souls that stick in my mind – the guidance that they receive for the years until the age of their majority will be of utmost importance . . .

    This kind of stuff – life altering events – also makes me reflect, “OK God, if this is part of the Master Plan, I’m good with that . . . but how ’bout a little hint as to why?”

  • Lisa

    This post really hit home for me, Kristin. I didn’t know Maricela, but I know she touched the lives of many, many people in our community. To see such a vibrant, giving, loving soul be taken early – especially orphaning two young children – makes me yearn to understand the lesson that we are intended to learn. Are we meant to learn appreciation for what we have and the time we are given together? Are we meant to learn the impermanence of this temporal life so that we are able to focus more deeply on our journey that extends beyond this earthly body (whatever we may believe that to entail)? Whatever we are MEANT to learn, I pray that while mourning what we no longer have we can all find a kernel of comfort to hold onto, and thank the ones we’ve lost for continuing to teach us even in death.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Sam, you’ve touched on some of the things I’ve been thinking about, particularly when it comes to “acclimating” oneself to heaven: “A sort of in between place to let go of your human self, if need be, in order to make the transition to whatever glory there is for us with God.” I have a hard time believing that Maricela is up there in the sky, just as happy as can be, rejoicing all day long. What I imagine is that she understands and feels sadness and pain, especially for her daughters, but that it is outweighed by God’s goodness and love, and by her ability to finally grasp who God is, and see the big picture. Thank you for sharing your insights, and feeding mine.

    Dave, there’s just a whole lot of “I don’t get it” in situations like this, isn’t there? And from my experience, I’ve learned that we’re not likely to get the hints we’d like. In fact, the moment I try to grasp what’s going on, and make educated guesses, I’m usually wrong. Will we ever learn to rest in peace in our not-knowing?

    Lisa, your mind works a lot like mine—when something bad happens, whether it’s relatively small or something much bigger, like Maricela’s death, I am desperate to find something positive to learn from it. At the same time, I don’t want to downplay the utter senselessness of such a death. I want to be OK just being angry and sad. Maybe that’s part of the grieving process—not even trying to learn something good from something bad, until more time passes. I think that’s been my experience after my divorce. Now, five years later, I’m beginning to draw many lessons and insights from that difficult experience.

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    Being honest, like you were with your kids, is the main goal. You have addressed it in regards of how to talk to them about sex & now honesty is still the best policy in talking to them about death.
    You talked of the compassion registering in your children’s eyes. I do believe that children’s faith is so much more pure than our own and reverting back to basic love & faith can give us some measure of strength.
    I too will say a prayer for those girls & also pray for those around them who will minister to them.
    When I was told there was a real chance I would die during my cancer treatments, I too struggled with the idea of heaven. My friend shared with me this. If this earth is so amazing and wonderful & worth struggling to stay alive & it is full of flaws & sin, imagine how much more wonderful will heaven be when we are reunited with God & his perfect love? Or maybe the last few lines from ee cummings, remember, will lift your soul a bit:

    in time of all sweet things beyond
    whatever mind may comprehend
    remember seek (forgetting find)

    and in a mystery to be (when
    time from time shall set us free}
    forgetting me, remember me

  • http://www.ihatemymessageboard.com Tracy

    Oh Kristin, I am so sorry. I don’t have any words of wisdom to offer, but I will be thinking of you and your girls and Maricela’s girls. I know that somebody who touched so many people will have given her daughters a huge legacy of love that they can carry with them and give them comfort and strength.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com/ Kristin T.

    Elaine, I see this, too: “I do believe that children’s faith is so much more pure than our own and reverting back to basic love & faith can give us some measure of strength.” I actually have been trying to remember how I used to think about heaven when I was a child. Also, the e e cummings poem *did* lift my soul a bit, in that intense happy-sad way. So beautiful. Thanks for thinking of sharing it.

    Tracy, thank you. In S’s fourth grade class Monday they read and talked about the book The Giving Tree, then made a huge giving tree in honor of Maricela. On each leaf and apple the kids wrote something that Maricela had given to them, their school and the world. It was a really moving, joyful experience for S, and I’m sure for her classmates, too. (They also learned about the staged of mourning, and S announced to me that she’s in the Denial stage.)

  • Trina

    While sufficiently late to tis gathering to question why bother responding… I do so as part of this community and to offer a warm hand on your shoulder, a warm hug and say I am sorry of for your loss, and how that will impact you, your children, and your community.
    In addition I wish to respond to your response laid out to jenx67. You mention your concern about putting off your readers both religious, and non-religious.
    As a reader from the perspective of non-religious I wish to say you handle your topics with such care, even though I may not always understand your reflections I can accept them as part of being you. I know your ponderings make me ponder my thoughts, and we dont have to agree to ‘think’ :-) Our sameness is stronger than our differences.