Where Do We Go When We Die? by Maureen Eich VanWalleghan
So I am dealing with a death in the family and wondering how to discuss this with my five year old daughter. My great aunt died yesterday. She and her husband were like a second set of grandparents for my daughter. Since my husband’s parents are dead, my husband had adopted my aunt and uncle as surrogate parents, doing things for them and often taking my daughter with him on his visits to their home.
My aunt was a very feisty gal. When I asked her what it was like to be married to someone for over 60 years she replied “It’s a lot of cooked meals.” Start doing the math and the number of meals is mind boggling. She was funny and fun. My daughter enjoyed her company. Hanging out at her home with my uncle and their two dogs, my aunt would always pull out little toys or pens and paper for my daughter to enjoy.
I really treasured my aunt. I think because she was not my mom we didn’t have the same emotional charge over issues and so it was easy to just relax around her. Generationally, she easily could have been a parent to my husband as she was 87 years old (I think.) I am going to miss her and so will my husband and daughter.
As I consider the upcoming conversation about death, I am trying to think of the questions my daughter will ask me like “Where do we go when we die?” When one has an obvious religious paradigm that governs their lives, answering the heaven question is clearly based on that religion. As a former Catholic, I just can’t speak to the big issues of life with the answers I grew up hearing. Both my husband and I fall more into a Native American ethic, though neither of us happens to be apart of any tribe. As a way to address our anti-religion stance I have started going to the Universal Unitarian church in town. In my conversations with my husband about this, I reminded him that we both had religions that we rebelled against, the least we can do for our daughter is to give her a structure for religion. And if there is something we disagree with at church then as a family we can discuss it.
A few years ago when my daughter was three years old, our dog was run over and had to be put down. We buried our wonderful dog at the lower lake by our home. My daughter got to see our dog just before she died and to touch her in death before we put our dog in the ground. My daughter asked a lot of questions, but three years old is not almost six years old. And a dog is not a person. But there it is: death is death.
So tomorrow on the drive over to see my uncle we will be talking about life and death. Today it will be more discussions between my husband and myself so that we are clear—as clear as anyone can be when faced with a loss—about the esoteric question that we all have: where do we go when we die. Figuring out how to explain what we believe to our daughter is definitely more difficult without religion.