All the love inside you

This morning Thaila woke up late, bounded into the living room in her blue nightgown and curled up on my lap. I was anticipating the usual morning banter: I’m hungry/I had a dream about Bubbles and Buttercup/Look, Emily peed on the floor. But instead:

“You know what M says about what happens after you die?”

A little different.

“She says when you or a cat or anyone dies that you go to heaven and you get to fly in the sky and eat candy! And then maybe see the pets that were dead, then you have a drink. And then you are alive again!”

“Um…wow, that’s what she told you?”


Lately Thalia has been asking more questions about death which I suppose is a result of ordinary four year-old curiosity, a playgroup friend who’s bringing it up, or maybe some dark episode of The Wonder Pets that I’m not quite familiar with.

(The baby turtle/she has a cerebral hematoooooma/this is sewious/oh shoot, she died.)

I have been all prepared to use the “some people believe X and some believe Y and one day you can believe what you want” response, but admittedly, I was caught a little off guard.

I imagined Nate, still asleep in the next room–Nate the raging, crazy Christopher Hitchens-loving, lapsed Mormon turned fist-shaking Atheist, and what he would have to say about Thalia’s conversation with her sitter. No doubt it would have incorporated the terms “fairy tale” and “snake oil.”

“Well, heaven is just a story, sweetie,” I said. “Some people believe it and some people don’t.”

“No it’s not! M told me that Desdemona went to cat heaven.”

“Well, kind of how you know [can’t say Santa/can’t say tooth fairy/ looking for an analogy here] …dragons are just a story?”

“No they’re not.”

Before I debated that point I had to stop myself and ask, why am I okay letting her think that Santa is real but not heaven? Why is the mythology of some winged fairy who sneaks in in the night and steals your teeth somehow more benign than the mythology of winged angels who serve you candy and drinks above the clouds? And what the heck do I tell her when she asks me what I think is true?

Then I realized that part of this issue is that I’ve never been able to entirely articulate what I believe.

I’m not a by-the-book Jew. (Or a by-the-Book Jew?) I’ve been able to float by for years now in the world of non-practicing Jews, spiritual to some degree but not religious, more bound to Judaism by the culture and celebratory traditions and our love of Chinese food and bad puns, than any sort of dogma or religious tenets. It’s been a fine and dandy sort of vague arrangement between me and my religion that’s suited me well for some time — including the part where I alternate between believing in some sort of higher power or afterlife or nothing quite so concrete, depending on the day.

But I’m getting to where I’m going to have to figure it all out a little better. Or at least figure out a way to talk about it. Because I’ve got a pair of curious kids who are not too far away from wanting to know what happens to cats and people when they die and I would like them to consider an option beyond “nothing” which I’d imagine is where Nate stands these days.

“So you know what I think?” I said, placing my hands on Thalia’s heart. “I think that when you die that all the love inside you and all the happiness and all the joy comes out and spreads alllll over the universe so that all the people who loved you in your life can feel a little bit of you all the time and carry it with them.”

“I like that,” she said, smiling.

“I like that too.”


69 thoughts on “All the love inside you”

  1. Have you noticed how these sorts of things always come up A) First Thing in the Morning, B) When your partner is asleep?

    We had the death phase of four earlier, and have moved onto the equally uncomfortable, “So-n-so at Summer Camp wanted to play Doctor and see my private body” conversations… I always thought I would be better prepared for these.

  2. I'm an Atheist in the sense that I don't believe in the conscious “God” that is the focus of the major religions, but I do believe in energy and the idea that everything in the Universe is connected. Try explaining that to a four year old whose goldfish just died! I definitely think it would be easier if I could tell the kids about heaven, but I can't, because I simply don't believe in it. I go with the Cycle of Life thing as much as I can.

  3. I truly believe “I don't know” is an ok answer—especially at this age. And, because no one REALLY knows, despite what some people believe is true.

  4. Liz, I'm in the middle of a post on this same thing. Love yours. And love your answers. The heaven thing is hard for me as previous commenter said, b/c I don;t really believe in it. I've been writing about it b/c a goldfish died and then a dear fried of ours died, and there's a link between the two situations: BIG UNCERTAINTIES. I'm no more sure of what happened to my friend than my son is sure what happened to his golfish. Anyway. Thanks for writing about this–it's inspired me to pick my own essay back up and finish it (I had set it aside b/c it was too painful at the time).

  5. I've had no problem with explaining to my kids that NO ONE knows! That makes it easier to say that different people have different ideas — M thinks what she thinks and I think… But truth be told, it's something that's a mystery to every single human being. And that's kind of cool!

    Of course, my little areligious children caught on pretty early. We'd read them myths and they'd also heard bible stories from a Reader's Digest book that Grandma had (she got it so they'd at least be culturally literate, right?!) and he oldest pretty quickly had linked the two as similar in genre.

  6. These are the toughies, aren't they? I remember being told so many different things by different people that I was very confused as a youngster. Where did George the cat go, anyways? 🙂

    I love, love, love your answer. Heaven and death is a huge concept to grasp, even for adults, so it is understandable that a four year old might also have some trouble. Making it more personal for her, and equating it with something she may already understand (love and sharing) will make the next leap to whatever she chooses to believe easier.

    As a Christian, I know we will face similar answer hurdles as our son gets older and asks the big questions. Our Bible tells us the truth, and we will go from there, albeit carefully.

    But sometimes, you have to be creative too. And really, when we die, parts of us stay with everyone we loved, in the form of memories! Our love never goes away. It is always remembered and kept in the hearts of others.

    Well done!

  7. I'm having a hard time with this now as well. My problem is that I am now delving into more detail with my 9 year old and trying to keep it “vague” with my just-5 year old.

    I am a maybe theirs a higher power, maybe not depending on the day kind of person. So I'm just trying to teach them respect everyone, no matter what the individual belief system is.

    You did awesome, and I may “borrow” that! 😉

    AND your Wonder Pets song made me pee my pants!!!

  8. Great response. I dread the religion talk too. I was raised a Jehovah's Witness and you want to talk about nightmares! “Armageddon will be here soon sweetheart. Nigh night.”

    I've been ignoring religion and hoping somehow she just won't figure out people die. Don't think that's gonna work though. At the moment she goes to a mother's day out program that is Church of Christ. She comes home singing all these bible songs. I know it makes her happy though.

    Blah, religion. What to do.

  9. best. wonderpets. song. ever. i tweeted it, with your credit, and almost made my husband pee his pants.

    and i liked your explaination about “life after death” too. 🙂

  10. I am totally going to use that since I haven't come up with anything better yet. So far whenever J asks my go-to answer is, “Um… Hey! Look over there!” And I run away. It's working but the day is coming when she's going to catch up with me.

  11. That is the perfect explanation.

    I just had the GOD talk with my three year old daughter the other day in the car. It started with “what is a church?” and quickly escalated to “what is God?” I gave her a long drawn out explanation of how some pople go to church to talk to God, but that I believe God is everywhere: flowers, animals, people. When I glanced back at her in my rearview mirror she was asleep.

  12. I was raised by a Jewish mother and non-practicing Christian. Mostly Jewish unless I wanted to fit in and then I was “both”. Often I was very confused and unsure of what I was. I remember clearly laying in bed at night scared of what happened when you died. My mother always said 'we don't know' which really didn't help. It would have been more comforting to have an answer even if it was a made up story. I am now raising my children Jewish and still don't believe most of it but know it gives them comfort and a place of belonging. They can decide when they are older what they want to believe and practice.

  13. I like that, too.

    When Maya was this age, I told her that I don't know what happens after we die, but that if I were to die, I would come and visit her in her dreams, and we could revisit happy days we had had together, or talk about whatever she wanted to talk about, that sort of thing. She liked that. Of course, my own mom died last year, and so far my dreams haven't been happy, mostly about her illness. 🙁

    We didn't do the whole santa thing around here, because of this stuff. We have often been accused of being abusive for just this reason.

  14. The baby turtle with the sewious hematoooooma? Awesome.

    I struggle with a lot of this too. Santa and the Tooth Fairy = fine. Baby Jesus = not fine. It's tricky to navigate.

  15. Um, well, so… I'm married to a son of two ministers and am daughter to a devout Seventh Day Adventist and only go to church to support my FIL's Christmas eve service or when my mother is celebrated for some reason or other. No matter what I do, I can't stay engaged with sermons. My thoughts usually wander off to Thalia's candy, pets, and drinks… though I do perk up when it's time to sing.

    But seriously, around our house Jon handles those convos. He's also got a hard stance on realism re: things like the Easter Bunny, Santa, etc. after seeing his brother devastated (at a rather old age) in learning that there really is no Easter bunny. Laurel seems to roll with that OK. The only problem is when she comes home saying that her friends say that Santa is real. We don't want to break other people's bubbles so we usually tell her that everyone enjoys holidays in different ways and that some kids believe in Santa and others don't and it's best to just let people enjoy how they celebrate.

    Usually the explanation is rambling enough that she gets bored and moves on. 🙂


  16. I'm a fairly by-the-book Jew, fortunately it's the edition that doesn't have an exact answer about heaven and the afterlife. For that I took a page out of my Hindu brethren's book, and I think probably did a good job considering that after my son's 7th birthday he wanted to save his candle “for the next time he was 7.”

  17. I like your answer and I'd love to steal it. Sounds way better than what I told mine when they asked.

    It's hard when you just don't know what you believe, to explain it to your kids. I basically told mine that people you love are always in your heart, after they die. Also, something about guardian angels. Possibly with a side of, sorry but I just don't know. Seems to have worked so far.

  18. We're both (hubs and I) Agnostic, but we knew that eventually we'd have to have this talk with our 4 year old (his family is VERY evangelistic). So we made it easier on ourselves this way: we let her watch the cartoon Hercules. Aside from how badly they follow the actual story OF Hercules (Hera, the mother? HAH!), she's able to ask questions about where Hades lives and whatnot. This was a GREAT lead-in when we started talking about death, as we were then able to say what we KNOW (the body dies), what we THINK (and what some of the family thinks), and what others think as well (i.e. some people think that the Underworld is a real destination). We then told her that just as we have different feelings about things in life, that people have different feelings about death as well. No one knows who is right or wrong, but what matters is that she treat every person with respect, and use her heart to find what SHE thinks is true.
    Now, if anyone has any tips on keeping well-meaning relatives from saying that your ideas are wrong and their ideas are the only right way, PLEASE send them this way, because (as I was raised Roman Catholic) I have NO IDEA on how to field the “rapture” idea!

  19. That was a beautiful thing to tell her. I am so nervous about talking about death/heaven to my oldest son, who just turned 4. He goes to church with us, but we rarely go. I talk to him about God, and who Jesus is, but it sounds like a really neat story to him. It's hard! “God is the guy who made the world, and Jesus was his son…”
    Blank stare.
    “Um… so we go to church to light candles and pray…”
    My son: “And there is that big cereal bowl in the middle!”
    Maybe I have to wait a few more years… 😉
    Last night he told me Santa was just a guy wearin a suit. He said he thinks it is his uncle George. Actually, I think i'll blog about this. Thank you! 🙂 xo

  20. I like your answer to your daughter very much, but more? I'm excited by the conversation happening in the comments. This is not a dialogue I generally get to experience or participate in where I live.

    I'm trying to find a balance now with my husband about what to answer or live or teach our three children wrt to faith v. church v. organized religion. My head starts to spin, but I find starting places for my own answers from your writing, and the comments. Thank you for that.


  21. I like that too.

    It's amazing how children make/allow us to lokwithin outselves and try and resolve our own beliefs…things we haven't put much thought into.

    We lost a dear friend, my husband's best friend a few years ago and celebrate him every year on the day he passed so we had to talk about it with Cameron. But I only told him as much as I think he could handle (or that *I* could handle, lol)

    And then we lost our dog…oh boy, the questions that brings up.

    I think you did a great job with that one.

  22. HOW did I not know that the bad puns was a lapsed Jew thing?! I thought it was just a not-funny husband thing.

    Great explanation. Thanks for sharing it, from a person who shares your general “not sure where I am today but pretty darn sure it's not the same thing the big religions are talking about”.

  23. I like your explanation.

    When we went through the death fascination phase (we still occasionally get it), I had no problem using the word heaven even though we're very non-religious people. I figure I don't know what to call it, my daughter is 4, and heaven is as good a word as any. It was either that or try and take her down the quantum physics route that I currently believe in, and that seems a little too advanced. 🙂

    What really surprised me is when she came home from preschool (nonreligious) and was talking about God (I'm nonreligious but feel like I have to capitalize it, funny eh?), Jesus, and praying. That was harder to talk about than death.

  24. Oh I will be in the same boat soon. My husband is re- finding his Catholic roots and I am quite happy being spiritual and not religious.
    Perhaps I will steal your explanation too…
    How does it feel to be brilliant? 🙂

  25. Gabriel was there when my grandfather passed away a couple weeks ago, and he was there when we pulled the blanket up over his head, and he was there when his body was taken out on a gurney (not by design mind you, it just happened to be that way because sometimes single parenthood hands you some interesting scenarios). Anyhow. We've been dealing with What Happens When You Die quite a bit since then. My family is one of atheists. Gabriel's father is a Baptist and his been telling him different things when Gabriel spends weekends with his dad.

    It's difficult.

    To say the least.

  26. When my oldest was about 3, he had a lot of questions about God so we'd talk about it as much as he wanted. But then I would catch him talking to himself while sitting on the toilet and I'd say, “what honey?” and he'd say “Mommmm! I'm talking to God! You interrupted me!” And I was all, “Did God say anything about me???”

    Another time, he was asking if I could play with him and I said no, I'm nursing the baby and I can only be in one place at a time. I saw his eyes light up and he says, “That's OK, Mom. God can play with me.” Then he looks up and says, “God, you can be the pig.”

    As he has gotton older, he doesn't do this anymore. But I still wonder if little kids tap into some dimension of spirituality that adults have a hard time connecting to because of all of the boundaries and judgment we put up as we grow up.

  27. Boy Crazy, I wonder that too. I used to think that Thalia was smiling at the ghosts in the corners of our apartment when she was little.

    And all these comments are just amazing. I'm learning so much from you all!

  28. I think you did a great job considering your own ambiguity on the subject. And as long as you can come up with enough of an answer that satisfies your child at the moment, it's a win in my opinion.

    I have a pretty clear idea about what I believe (yes, heaven exists), but I know the world will give my child LOTS of different answers. So we often talk about what we believe, what others believe, and how she will eventually have to decide for herself but the truth is that no one knows for sure until they die.

    I think my road is easier because my beliefs are very hopeful. I don't envy you this discussion because you need to be true to yourself without taking away hope from your child. I think you have made a good start.

  29. I like your version of the afterlife. All I can wish you is clarity on your own religious pursuits and how to approach it with your children. I know this is a difficult thing. My mother actually let me choose.

    She did not actively attend church but when my great aunt took me to church she did not protest and attended all of my functions. I stopped going when I was about 9 and didn't start again until I was 12 or 13, all on my own.

    A good number of my friends growing up were Jewish and I spent a good amount of time in elementary school envying their attendance at Hebrew School. I think I once asked my mom if I could go but I think she said no.

    As I teen I attended many bar/bat mitzvahs and can still sing parts of the Torah.

    It will all work itself out but perhaps your children will be exposed to a number of different religions and make a decision when they are older on their own.

  30. Yeah, this is a tough one. I also waiver in my beliefs depending on the day. My three year old son noticed a dead bird on the street recently and though I desperately tried the, “hey look over there, it's a giant panda bear,” routine, he wasn't taking the bait. He was ok with it though and came up with an explanation of his own involving tigers and fire trucks. I think the bigger the deal we make about death, the bigger a deal and more upsetting it'll be for them.

  31. I didn't have time to read *all* the comments, so someone may have already mentioned this, but I heartily recommend “The Tenth Good Thing About Barney” by Judith Viorst, a totally wonderful picture book about a little boy whose cat dies. It explores these questions in a way suitable to atheists and agnostics, and it is a sweet little tale. Here is the link on Amazon:

  32. As a child raised in, to name a few: a Quaker community, an ashram and a past-life reader's commune – it goes without saying that I am confused and feel many different ways, depending on the moment. Somehow my 4 year old wound up just as confused – she thinks that when people die, they go to Kevin and Kevin is in Canada!?? I think I really need to work on my death game – thanks for the jump start (i'm still working out the “what part of your body was I in before I was in your belly?” question of LAST week.)

  33. There is a book called Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion that I found insightful. If nothing else, it was just reassuring to know we weren't alone.

  34. Love this post. I also struggle with what, exactly I believe. I'd love to just quote Scripture at my kids–it would make fielding questions like this much easier–but while I believe the basic tenants of my religion of choice, I'm not exaaaactly sure what I think that means when it comes to the afterlife. So far I've wimped out with the “Well, some people believe X and some believe Y; what do YOU think?” But I think your answer was perfect.

  35. Beautiful. We've had a lot of death in my extended family, in addition to a lot of dead wildlife in our yard, so my three year old has been talking about death a lot. I've always wanted to respond with an answer like yours but unfortunately I tear up too much to get the words out.

    My niece talks about her grandfather in heaven eating dinner with God– and I'm glad that works for her, but I can't see it working in my house.

  36. I say the “that's what some people believe” thing and then ask her where she thinks they go. And where heaven is.

    I'm sure that will soon come to bite me in the ass.

    But I love that you together came up with your own definition of “where we go.”

  37. I'm not sure what's more brilliant. What you ended up saying to her or your new lyrics to the Wonder Pets jingle… hmmmmm…. ; )

  38. I love your answer and will try it here on my three year old. I so was not prepared to answer these questions for a three year old. When we speak of someone who died, she cheerfully suggests we go to the store and buy a new cousin,

  39. Just found your blog, and will book-mark it I think 🙂

    I'm an atheist, who celebrates the Easter Bunny, and Santa, and the Tooth Fairy (if ever one of my chillins decides to actually lose a tooth).

    I have never lied about Santa; I absolutely believe he exists, as the spirit of love and generosity and magic that we hold inside us. When my kids ask me about him, that's exactly what I'll say.

    I love your description of heaven, too.

  40. Those questions! I sometimes tell my kids that some people spend their entire lives trying to figure them out and still no one really knows.

    Sometimes I tell them that I believe there's something more, something bigger beyond our lives but it's tough to explain.
    My six year old told me one time, “thinking about this give me a headache because I don't really understand it”
    Neither do I!

  41. My phone hates letting me see your blog, so this is a little late.

    The little angel thinks Sybil and Bella are up in cat heaven eating mouse popsicles and yucking it up.

    I'm a religious person, so I explain to her my version of heaven that way. I think you gave a very well-put answer, and this is a great and thoughtful post. Dang kids making us think about what we believe all the time.

  42. Oh, to add to that, we've also (my ten year old and I) decided that since everything in the universe becomes something else after it is destroyed or altered (burnt wood becomes ashes which blow away in the wind or settle into the earth, making new soil, etc.) why would we think that the energy from our bodies ceases to exist, just because the heart ceases to beat? It just becomes something DIFFERENT.

  43. I shared this with my grieving husband and sister-in-law. No matter our age the words you said to Thalia warmed our hearts and can give us comfort. Thank you.

  44. i've struggled with the same thing since even before littlebean was born a year ago.

    that was a perfect answer- especially on the fly!

    i'm fine w/ my vagueness as well.
    but i'm not fine with the thought of having to explain to my daughter where meemaw & poppa are… saying “NOWHERE” just sounds so—- horrid.

    so, i've got a few years yet. but i bet i won't come up with anything so great. can i use your line??

  45. I'm already struggling with these issues, and my daughter isn't even five months old yet! I just wrote a post agonizing about baptism…his parents want us to, we really don't.

    I like your answer, though. May steal it someday…

  46. I totally had this exact conversation with the 6 year old last week, because she started talking to me about “God Ghosts” flying around in the clouds. Shes got lots of confused ideas. Random stuff she has picked up from school and her (christian) sisters.
    My husband is Jewish, (The same way you are, I think) And I call myself a pagan, mostly because there really isn't a way to define what I actually believe. I guess for the poor kids sake, I should probably figure it out, huh?
    I did end up giving her the “Some people believe X, Y and Z.” And she flat out asked me, “Well…What do I believe then?”
    Um, crap.

  47. For a long time, I have believed the same thing you told your daughter, and I like the way you put it to her. I'm a lapsed/recovering Episcopalian, and I find it amazing that so much of our culture, especially religious belief, is built on sentimental blandishments and ridiculous falsehoods: “God has a plan.” “Everything happens for a reason.” “God never gives you more burdens than you can bear.” To rebut: a) the Holocaust; and b) suicide. Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay on the lies we tell kids:

    I hypothesize that adults are more likely to cling to magical thinking or look for ways to justify their beliefs, no matter how unlikely, if they are fed religion that brooks no doubt or skepticism. I wonder how many of the birthers and town-hall shouters were taught that when you die you sit up in the sky and look down at the world. If you really think about eternal consciousness, it would be unbearable. Human beings have evolved to live for a certain amount of time, both physically and mentally, so I don't know how we could endure eternity.

  48. Oh, goodness. Great answer.

    My 3 yo is death-obsessed. She asks if her food is dead before she eats it. She asks when she'll die, when I will die, etc. She wants to know how you get to the cemetery, whether they put dirt on you before or after. If she pushes her brother too hard, will he die. And will he ever come back. Why people are sad when people die. Will she cry when I die. Will her (future) children cry when she dies. Why people ask her to stop talking about death. Can you see anything when you are dead. And on and on and on….

    My living family is mostly a combination of agnostic or atheist Jews and my MIL is a practicing Catholic and I am Christian and hoo boy.

    I told her that when people die they no longer feel anything that hurts them but that the people who are still alive miss them very much–that's why we are sad when we think about loved ones passing away.

  49. Reading this for the first time since you linked to it from today's post. Typing with tears in my eyes because I love your response. My son is 2 and I don't know where I stand on religion, in general, anymore. (Grew up Southern Baptist.) Thanks for giving me a future answer for him!

  50. I have been thinking about this post… my five year old has also been wrestling with these big topics, and I know that we’re only beginning. I don’t know if you will even see this comment (since the post is 4 years old!), but I want to share a story about my daughter’s own wisdom about life and death. (I hope that this isn’t shameless self/blog-promotion… I don’t mean it to be.)

    1. I see the comment Jen! Thank you so much for chiming in. Clicking over now; always happy to hear how other parents handle tough conversations.

  51. I was puttering around Huff Post today because I was published for the first time yesterday. I read your most recent post there and followed the rabbit trail to your blog. I talk a ton about faith issues on my blog and appreciated this post SO much. So much.


    1. That’s so nice, thank you Shannon. And congrats on your piece! What a hugely exciting moment. Hope you emailed it to everyone you know–twice.

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