Try to make it sound like you are confident, like you know the answers even though you do not. Realize you will probably not know what to say. You will stumble and fail and get everything wrong and make it more complicated than it has to be and cause greater misunderstandings, both short term and long term. You will say dumb things, very dumb things. But you will have to say something.
When you’re asked questions like “Where is heaven?” understand that you will pause. You will pause mightily, significantly. You will curse yourself for not having come up with a ready-made, soul-satisfying answer. And you will start to ramble, prefacing what you’re about to say by pointing out that, well, not everyone believes in heaven, because people believe different things and have different ideas and different, like, conceptions and interpretations, and then you’ll go on to say that heaven, if you believe in it, and it’s OK either way, if you believe or if you don’t—heaven is supposedly way up high in the sky, past where airplanes fly, above the clouds and not there when you look, it’s something you can’t see.
“What if you have binoculars?” your four-year-old son asks.
He’s a master of the follow-up question, lawyerly inquisition, the eliciting of deeper information that, increasingly, you are unable or reluctant to give.
“With binoculars,” he continues, “would you see heaven then?”
“No,” you say. “Not even then.”
Do your research. Hit the Internet. Type in your searches (“death children coping understanding advice parents help”). Click on the links. Read the articles. Print out the good ones for reference later. Comb through parent message boards. Dissect. Filter. Re-evaluate. Rub your blurry eyes. It’s late, past Letterman, past Conan, and you have to work the next morning. Toss and turn for hours until you finally fall asleep.
Because death is on your young son’s mind. Your aunt died four months ago. And then: your mother-in-law dies. There is the funeral, the coffin, weeping, reckoning. More goddamned questions—about Nani, Nani’s body, about death. Plus your son watches Scooby-Doo. There are ghosts. The dead rise. He’s into ancient Egypt, too. Mummies. Sarcophaguses. Death is suddenly everywhere you look. The pirate flag: skull and crossbones, grim connotations.
He wants to know when he’ll die. He wants to know when his mom will die. He wants to know when you’ll die. These are all good questions. And you wonder if you asked these same things when you were his age, if you were similarly death-obsessed as a child. You don’t think so, but you can’t say for sure. So you call your mom.
“Did I ask you about death when I was four, five?”
She waits, then answers: “I don’t remember.”
Check out books from the library. One of them is written by Mister Rogers. It’s about a pet dying. Close enough, you figure. There are pictures. It’s an old book, from the 1970s. The pictures are faded, some pages torn. One family buries its beloved pet in the backyard. Mom, father, son, daughter—they stand somberly in the suburban sunlight, the dead animal in the ground, already transformed into memory.
Know that, because you are not a believer, things will be much, much more difficult.
After you read the book, your son asks about Mister Rogers. He says he wants to meet him.
“Maybe someday,” you vaguely say.
You don’t tell your son that Mister Rogers is dead, too.
Prepare long, articulate, fatherly speeches on the subject. Prepare to also forget everything you plan to say.
Another book from the library is called The Three Birds. It’s about a bird family: mother, father, baby. The mother gets sick. She can’t fly anymore. She dies. The baby bird asks, “Where is my mother now?” The father bird explains it this way: The mother bird is living in the sun, a place where it’s warm, and she can fly again. But this confuses your son.
“She can fly? Or she can’t fly? I thought she was dead.”
Good fucking point.
“Well,” you start, “she can fly in the sun, the place where she is now, after she died. Which is like heaven. If you’re someone who believes in heaven. Some people do, some people don’t. Like I’ve been saying. The whole book is… predicated on the assumption that you believe in heaven, the afterlife. It’s a POV thing, really.”
Your son doesn’t say anything for a while. Then he repeats the question: “She can fly? Or she can’t fly?”
You once wrote a short story about a father and son talking about death. The son was pretending to be dead. He’d close his eyes, not move, and say see if you can see me breathing. The father was worried. The father did not know what to say. This was before you had a child. The story had been completely imagined. Now you’re living the story. It has strangely come to life. The story ends like this: “He breathes and closes his eyes. I hold my breath again. He doesn’t move.”
You also once heard a story about a poet who wrote a poem about a little girl dying. Then the poet’s own young daughter died. When you heard that, you made a mental note to never write any stories about children dying.
What about stories in which children deal with/confront/try to understand death? Did those count as well?
He tells your wife, his mother, “I’m never going to die, Mommy. I’m never going to ever die, not even today.”
Seriously consider giving in and just saying there is a heaven and that’s what happens when you die. Leave it at that. Put an end to all your vague phrases and awkward pauses. He’ll figure it out for himself later, just like you did.
“Will I ever see Nani again?”
“What about in heaven?”
“When am I going to die?” he asks.
“Not for a long time.”
“No. Much longer. Not for a very, very long time.”
“No. Much longer,” you say. “Much, much longer.”
“OK,” he says.
He seems, finally, for the moment at least, satisfied, and you are relieved.