We had a recent death in the family. Someone very close, a young adult, very unexpected.
My kids were distraught. They were inconsolable. They struggled to even process the loss.
For a brief, flickering moment, in a desperate desire to assuage their grief, I felt tempted to tell them that the person we lost wasn’t dead but was “in a better place,” or some other trite pacifier that we use in such situations.
I resisted the urge and we all proceeded to experience the pain in reality. In the moment, I fully understood why parents use the heaven crutch, even if they don’t fully believe it. It just feels easier, nicer, more palatable, than the blunt reality. It feels easier to deliver the message.
But I learned something wonderful from this experience. My children were incredibly resilient. They experienced a tragic loss and they survived. And they experienced the loss in full, without the fluffy imagery my parents used on me when I was a kid.
This experience helped confirm what I’ve believed since becoming a father. Children like the truth. They crave the truth, and they’re very good at detecting bullshit (up until the point where persistent brainwashing takes control). I never baby-talked my kids, and I made a conscious effort to use adult words with them. Not surprisingly, people often comment on their impressive vocabularies. I try to be direct and honest about uncomfortable subjects and I’ve found it just works.
Regarding death, I’ve always told the kids that the person we lost will always be in our hearts. At some point, sadly, I had to explain that we use the word heart as a euphemism because our heart is a muscle that pumps blood and our emotions stem from our brain. I realized the necessity to delineate this distinction after noticing how many adults fail to understand this reality.
Here’s the bottom line regarding the death of a loved one. The pain and the anguish is going to be there regardless of your afterlife beliefs. Based on my anecdotal experience, an N of 1, I’ve concluded that all heaven does is make it easier for adults to talk to children about death. The kids will experience the pain, regardless of an afterlife belief, and that pain may never go away, regardless of an afterlife belief. I’m confident we all know people that have been grieving a loved one for many, many years even though they have strong afterlife beliefs.
Death sucks. Period.
And even though it’s actually difficult to process, we’ll all be dead and forgotten in a relative eye blink.
I think all we can do in the meantime is utilize some obvious clichés. Cherish the people you care about while they’re still here. Relish the stupefying fortune that you beat impossible odds just to exist. Appreciate your life as best you can, do with it what you can to serve you and those around you. Take a deep breath once in a while and try to remember what’s really important to you.