I visited my grandparents' graves this weekend, and I didn't know what to say.
It all happened quickly, in the span of about five minutes.
We were just pulling out of the small town of Oakhurst (near Yosemite, where we had spent the night after a friend's wedding). Glad to be all snug and warm in the car, on our way home after a long night in the Best Western motel, we headed toward the highway.
But then saw the small, asphalt road to the cemetery, tucked behind a fast-food restaurant on our right. I remembered that I had planned to visit my grandparents' graves. It's not often that we make it to their old hometown.
I made the turn.
Rolling to a stop alongside the green grassy oval of the cemetery, I hopped out of the car, and, thinking it would be interesting to my oldest son too, I unfastened 3-year-old George from his child's seat. He came tumbling out of the car.
We walked past a few headstones and then looked down at the modest, metal (iron?) plaques showing the final "resting place" of his great grandmother and great grandfather.
That's when I realized I had a problem.
"Look, George. Here they are. That's where your great grandparents are... Stan and Catherine Stavrum." I started by stating the facts as best I knew them.
He looked down at the dark gray rectangles in the grass, then back up at me blankly.
"They had to go away..." I said uncertainly. "They died."
He waited for me to continue.
"But now... they are..."
What? "Sleeping"? No, that's silly. And in the moment it struck me as downright frightening for a 3-year-old, too. Who wants to sleep forever? How do you know it's not going to be forever when you go to sleep on any given night? It raised too many troubling issues.
Plus it was a lie.
So I changed the subject.
"They lived here in Oakhurst. They had a house here, by a river."
George pointed to their two metal plaques, like two rooms in an architectural plan.
"Is that their house?" he asked, putting two and two together.
"No..." I said. I looked down with him. I was still not sure what level of metaphor, what softening language, to use for the occasion. Maybe in some sense these two graves are their "house" now? Maybe this grassy oval is?
"No, that's not their house," I continued. "But they are here now, in the ground. And it's beautiful. Look at the sun!"
He followed my pointing finger to gaze at the orb of the sun, rising yellow in a mist over the nearby hills.
I took his hand and we walked back in the brisk air, our mouths breathing steam.
He didn't say another word about it. But I knew that I needed to come up with a better way of talking about death with my kids. As I slid into my seat, my wife said, "How did it go?"
"We've got to talk," I said quietly and turned the ignition.
"Yeah," she said, knowing exactly what I meant.
Some people would have no problem with this one. "Grandma and Grandpa are in Heaven!" is easy to say and sounds uplifting. If your child asks more questions, talk about God and angels, the Oneness of Love, even clouds.
But I believe that teaching children to honor top-down, faith-based ideological systems (see the major monotheistic religions, or for that matter, secular state ideologies which preach blind faith and devotion to some authority figure) is tantamount to child abuse. Richard Dawkins and others have written powerfully on this theme, and it appears frequently in readers' comments on Dawkins' website richarddawkins.net.
Below you will find the most-viewed user-generated video in America. Nearly 4 million people have watched it. Here we have a simple scene, an adorable girl reciting Psalm 23 in her family's kitchen. It's hard not to smile at her innocence and her concern about getting the words right ("Surely?" she keeps asking as a point of clarification).
But from my vantage point, what we are witnessing here is an indoctrination into the cult of not-thinking and in-group mentality. Before our very eyes, this girl is learning how to abdicate responsibility for her own values. Instead, she is learning to rest her natural moral sense (can you imagine this girl willfully doing harm to another person?) in the all-too-eager hands of the many authority figures who will claim to represent the Way of Jesus Christ. In ten years or less she will probably hold pointless, hurtful beliefs about why some people are not entitled to love and marry those whom they choose. And if she happens to talk about religion and morality with me someday, she may shed a tear about how my family will burn in hell.
Watch it with these parenting issues in mind and it changes the experience:
So easy (and false) answers about "heaven" are not an option for me and my wife. That would be damaging to our children, we believe.
But that doesn't help us when it comes to finding answers that do fit the occasion of visiting my grandparents' graves.
After pondering this question some, here is what I have resolved:
1. I will give the children more information rather than less. That means everything. The truth as I far as I know it.
2. To the extent that there is a strong possibility that individual consciousness ends and nothing replaces it (except a slow or quick mixing of the physical body with the earth, depending on whether you opt for burial or cremation), I will acknowledge the full scope of my feelings about it. It is upsetting, seen in some lights. But it is inspiring too, seen in others. We need to talk about our emotional responses to the knowledge of death, even our fear of dying.
3. I will never presume to know exactly what happens after we breathe our last breath, since the truth is that no one knows.
4. I will use the occasion to remember and celebrate those people who are no longer with us. Next time the deaths of my grandparents comes up with my children, I plan to tell a story or two about them. It will be a treat.