Parenting through the hard questions

Death & Afterlife

Jonie first thought of skeletons as robots. Her young brain saw them as mechanical shadows of people but not people in any form. Now she refers to them as bones - her eyes see them as remnants of life, signatures of death.

A few days ago she asked about my grandmother, "GG," and wondered if she could visit her bones in the graveyard. We promised her that we would take Jonie to see her the next time that we are up North. We could write a card for her, draw a picture. We could leave these things for her.

Jonie asked this around the time that the conclave was voting on a new pontif. I thought of my grandmother, the devout catholic, and how touched she would be that the pope chose the name Francais. Her name and favorite saint. Keeper of the poor, our people.

Jonie has an uncanny connection to GG that I can't explain away. She met her first as an infant and was with us when we sat with GG as she was dying. Jonie was a year old when the entire family sat vigil- over 20 of us spanning four generations - to see her through. GG wanted so badly to pass on Christmas so she could be with Jesus and Jim, my grandfather, on her Lord's birthday. Jonie was just learning to take her first steps as GG was learning to take her last breaths.

Since then, Jonah ha called out "GG!" when I've pulled out items that belonged to her. Objects as nondescript as a glass creamer or a knit doll. I was not surprised that she was asking about GG around the days of the conclave. I am not religious nor do I believe in an afterlife, but I do believe we have ways of knowing, of feeling. There are ways of togetherness that bring two people, like Jonie and GG, to feel each other in life and death. They're linked.

As non-Christians, we've never discussed heaven or afterlife with Jonah. I've never told her that we go to a "better place." This life is precious, it is short, it does end, and we all become bones at some point. We are lucky to draw breath, life is miraculous every day. Death is not something to worry about, it just is.

I've realized, though, that I am not teaching Jonie ways of seeing. That this lesson is void of metaphor and meaning - it is death told in corporal detail absent the colorful details of our lives.

It has occurred to me recently that perhaps I should tell Jonie that we all have our own deaths. Some will go to heaven. Some will die and turn to soil. Some will be reborn on this earth. It occurred to me that maybe I should honor in death the beliefs my grandmother held in life. This is the best way to honor her now. For Jonie to honor her.

I might ask Jonie to think of me as turning back to the earth, that I will be reabsorbed and turned into many things, time and time again, and how lucky it will be for me to be both life and death at once.

In my heart this feels like the most compassionate telling. I will tell Jonie the story and truth that each person holds for themselves. This is a story we share, for them. For us all. Perhaps I should ask her what her story will be?

I worry though, that this might confuse her. What is real? What is true? All are true in my mind.

Do you think there is truth and compassion in telling the story of others' beliefs in thier death or is it better to instill only our narrative, one narrative, until she finds her own?

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