Charlotte Haines Lyon on how the perception of death and heaven in children can help shape yours in adulthood
“I’ve had a lot of death in my life,” the seven year old proudly told a bemused market trader.
She proceeded to list her deceased chickens, fish, Grandma’s dog, two cats and three chooks before finishing triumphantly on the dead fox she found in a ditch.
It may not be as dramatic as her statement implied, yet it is true that my daughters have experienced a lot of animals kicking the bucket. We have had endless conversations about death.
On the recovery of the body of Snowy, the girls wanted to see what “dead looked like”.
I showed them the chook’s head poking out of the newspaper. Elsa wanted to know the difference between sleeping and dead. I decided against unwrapping the rest of the corpse with its entrails hanging out.
Last month one of our four rescued mistle thrush chicks died. The girls were predictably distraught. They were delighted when a taxidermist relative offered to stuff it for them.
Consequently, we currently have a frozen chick in our freezer awaiting “treatment.”
The girls think this is amazing – the chick on return will “live” with us forever. However they cannot understand why visitors do not want to inspect the icy chick that I haven’t quite got round to posting yet.
Last week another one of Elsa’s chickens was foxed. Indignance reigned. She was furious that this was her third murdered chicken, when my chicken has outfoxed Billy the Brush every time.
Far more seriously though, things got theological. “Jesus came back to life so why can’t Whitebeak?”
Glowering through the tears, she continued, “Jesus came back to life and my chicken didn’t and neither did the little boy who died from cancer. It’s not fair!” Quite.
“Well sweetheart, Jesus didn’t stay around very long- he ascended into heaven so it’s not like he’s playing about with his friends,” I countered.
“But Mummy people say he’s alive.”
Anya was more interested in heaven. “How can heaven be up when people get buried down? Stars are up, not heaven. I don’t believe in heaven.”
Now I know that the point of pets is to help children experience life and death but this was getting tricky.
Then Anya had a flash of brilliance. “You know when I think about my dead chicken Thunder, I can see her in my head. Well that means she’s still sort of alive.
She’s alive in my head so that means heaven’s in my head. And now I am talking to you about Thunder we are all thinking about her so she is still alive in all of us. We are making heaven.”
So I looked at the 7 year old and looked at the 5 year old and decided honesty was the best policy. “Elsa I can see your problem but if I am really honest, I don’t understand much about Jesus coming back to life or going to heaven either.
"But it seems to me your big sister is very, very clever and might have come up with an answer.” Miraculously Elsa went away quite happy.
As Elsa mentioned, a local boy, who I will call Stephen, died of cancer recently. He was four. As the whole community had been raising money for his much needed treatment overseas, you can imagine the outpouring of grief. Unsurprisingly there was much talk about heaven.
I have never been convinced about heaven, at least not a place where people meet up for a jolly good sing song as it is often portrayed. I have always patronisingly dismissed such talk as grieving hearts looking for comfort.
However this time, with the help of Anya, I thought differently. I had only met Stephen once, but with all the fundraising that had gone on, he had certainly made an impact on me.
He has taken up space in all of our brains. At the very least, when we all think of him, as Anya says he is in a strange way alive.
In some incomprehensible way Stephen is in the very least alive in the collective consciousness of our community.
I have no idea if it is any more than that but am not sure it really matters. The point it in some shape or form there is life after death.
So yes there has been a lot of death in our lives recently.
However thanks to a seven year old there has also been a little bit of heaven. Maybe a childlike faith and all its questions has something to offer us all.
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