Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Matter of Life and Death

I came across an old magazine article recently advising how to talk to your kids about the Sandy Hook tragedy. Then just the other day I saw a summary of the official report on the shootings had been released, as we approach the one-year anniversary. One year. It seems hard to believe. I still feel sick whenever I think about it; I'm sure most of us do.

Neither kid has ever offered up any questions about Sandy Hook, although they certainly heard it talked about and saw (brief snippets) on the news. I'm thankful for that. I'm thankful because there are questions that, despite my best efforts, prayers, and attempts, lack the answers I wish I could provide: that I can guarantee they will be safe, that horrific things like that will not happen again.

Anna has never talked about this, despite her natural curiosity about most things, but in the past few months it's been Ethan who's been asking lots of questions about death. He even approaches it in the classic style they mentioned in the magazine article: he'll express out-of-the-blue statements or concerns, then make a quick gear-shift to something completely mundane. It throws me, big-time. "I don't want to die," he'll whimper before bedtime, and follow it up three seconds later with, "Tomorrow we have art!" and a huge smile on his face.

In these discussions I always feel as if I am treading dangerous waters. My sense is to proceed very cautiously and try to straddle that line between not outright lying but not providing frightening details that will refuse to leave his mind.

As with most of life, Ethan tries to make rules about death. First, he was convinced that only old people died. I had to very gingerly tell him that sometimes (not often) other people did, too. Thankfully, he didn't get hung up on that too much, but did zero in on the age thing. Of course, he wanted an exact age, wanted to know how old most people live to. He's settled on the eighties. Most people who are in their eighties are definitely going to die soon, he's decided. I just worry about the day he goes up to one of these octagenarians and lets them know that.

"I want my body to live forever!" he tells me, most likely thinking of superheroes and powers. And of course this would be a great time to talk about God and heaven and all of that, and we do...but try explaining a concept like heaven to a concrete thinker for whom imagination is not a strength. Those pat Christian answers don't completely work. You'll be with Jesus all the time in heaven, honey. Meanwhile, he's thinking: I don't know where that is, what it looks like, or what I'll do there. "I want to live in this house forever," he has said emphatically. Heaven? At this point he can't even picture the cliché-ish angel on cloud with a harp. Heaven is not much more than a word.

A little theological break here: when I think of heaven, I imagine excerpts from a couple of great books: The Shack and C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle. Floating around on clouds all day, playing harps, walking on streets of gold while calmly all sounds rather boring to me. I've got to think God is more creative than that. In The Last Battle, which describes the ultimate fall of Narnia and the "end of the age" of that world, the characters talk about how as they enter what is their version of heaven, they see it's actually heaven that is the "real" thing, that everything that had lived in Narnia was just a pale copy of what truly exists...that the juciest, sweetest fruit they had ever tasted was dry and sour. Everything good and awesome and wonderful on earth is there -- but better. And as the character in The Shack has a moment to see from God's perspective, in heaven I envision there is a creativity we now can't fathom, where the very growing of plants and setting of the sun sends off colors and sounds and beauty we can't even take in. To me, heaven isn't a cloud. It's a completely different dimension.

Yeah. Good luck explaining that to a kindergartener.

And so I falter, trying not to sound like I'm spouting platitudes. And sometimes, trying not to cry.

"I want to know something," Ethan asked the other day, in the middle of washing his hands. "Does it hurt to die?"

Oh God, I thought. Literally. Like I know this?

"Only for a minute, hon," was all I could say. "Then you don't hurt anymore, ever."

And a few weeks ago, the tears welling in his eyes...I can't write about this without crying, too: "But I don't want to go to heaven without my family. I want to be with all of you forever."

Somehow I managed to hug him and hide my own eyes. I had to relieve some of the stress, so I told him that he wasn't going to die for a long, long time, and that he didn't need to worry about that right now. Someday, maybe we will tackle the concept of eternity, of the wisp that this life is compared to the forever, and that his family will be with him, and that any separation from each other will be like the blink of an eye.

I remember lying in bed when I was 9 or 10, trying to fathom that God always was and always will be. I thought of that page in The Last Battle, the one talking about all of them starting their life in eternity, and attempted to grasp the concept of existing without an end. My brain started hurting, and I started to feel really strange and slightly scared. Sometimes I still do.

But I know, when I was a child, I wasn't just handed clichés. My hope and prayer is that everything I share, everything I teach, comes straight from my heart, my experience, my belief, and is not just rote obligation. So for now, we talk a little bit...about God, and heaven. About death. And about reassurance and security. I don't think he needs so many words right now. I think sometimes he just needs to be held and told it's going to be okay.

C.S. Lewis - concluding words of The Last Battle

“And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

No comments: