Hope and Death

My daughter and I watched a delicate little field mouse draw its last breath on our front stoop yesterday afternoon. Our hound dog’s face had just emerged triumphantly from the viney ground cover that lines our sidewalk and dropped the poor twitching creature from her mouth when I screamed “Daisy! No!”

My kiddo held hope for a few moments that the mouse was OK. “Maybe it just needs to rest a minute, mommy. It’s probably just scared.” It died as we hovered over it, trying to revive it with our wishes and whispered encouragement.

I buried it in the soft earth next to our garage. My daughter originally wanted to leave it for a scavenger, like they do when they discover a dead animal at her outdoor Kindergarten. Her school sprawls across 42 acres that includes wondrous wooded knolls, a natural pond, a small stream, dense underbrush, and wide open fields – a thriving suburban ecosystem. 

The first time the Forest Kindergarteners came upon a dead animal this year, her teacher sent an email to all the parents letting them know that they had found a dead bird, and that some of the children had decided to fashion a grave for it using rocks and twigs and leaves to make a circle around its body, and to say goodbye to it. “We left the bird for a creature who would make it a meal, and talked a little about the circle of life”. She attached a photo of children, including my kiddo, gingerly placing pebbles in a reverent ring around the body of the chestnut colored nuthatch.

When I buried the field mouse, my daughter confidently assured me that “It will be safe and cozy there in the dirt. Nothing can eat it.” I reminded her that, in fact, worms and other small creatures that live in the soil will eat it. This seemed to remind her of something her teacher told the class; “Oh yeah. That’s right. Dead things get eaten, too.”

She was calm and matter of fact about the mouse throughout this funeral rite, but when she told my husband, Les, about it later, she teared up a little bit. “It was so CUTE, daddy! So tiny and furry!”. She had also silently wept when I told her a few days ago that Les had squashed a big spider in the mudroom. “Why did he kill it, though? Why didn’t he take it outside? Why did he kill a living thing?”. Hot tears slid down her cheeks in genuine anguish.

We’ve talked about death regularly since our beloved Chihuahua mix died last summer. We told her that AuggieDoggie is with God, and that we’ll see him again some day. I believe that some version of that statement is true. We told her our current beliefs about heaven, and resurrection, and that God will make a new Earth someday and all the people and animals will be together again. Some days I waffle on how confident I am about that, but I don’t tell her about my doubts. I choose to project the most hopeful version of all the things I’ve believed and wrestled with over the last several years. 

I wonder whether she’s regaling her classmates with musings on eternity, as she often does with us.

“When God brings us back to life on the new Earth, we can jump from high up and not get hurt! And I won’t need a flu shot, because we can’t get sick!”

“On the new Earth, I bet the dinosaurs will have to all be in one place so they don’t try to eat us.”

“Auggie and Daisy will play together someday when we all die and come back to Earth!”

In the car on the way to school last week, I told her that my grandpa was missing a finger. His pinky finger had gotten cut off in an accident, and the doctors couldn’t reattach it. 

“When your grandpa comes back to life on the new Earth, will he have all his fingers?”

I’ve found a lot of comfort in her unmuddied focus on the wholeness and togetherness of the afterlife. She doesn’t seem terribly ruffled by thinking or talking about death. Her curiosity and open-hearted approach to these discussions feels healing to me. I spent at least 30 years terrified of death. 

In July, it will be 20 years since my dad died of complications from Type 1 Diabetes. He was 51 – just 8 years older than I am now. I was 23 when I got the call at 2:30 am that the disease that had ravaged his body since he was five years old had overtaken him. 

Growing up with a parent with a debilitating chronic illness can really do a number on one’s mental health. I didn’t realize just how sick he was, or how perilous every hospital stay really was, until I was in middle school. Once the reality of the situation hit home, I spent the next 11 years worried every day that that day would be the day that he died. Or worse! That somehow my mom would die before my dad, and we three kids would be left to care for him.

But don’t you worry, I also had a thick layer of Fear of Hell ladled on top of all that Fear of Dad Dying. And the Fear of Hell started much earlier. Because on top of the fear that my mom or dad could drop dead at any minute, I was also very much afraid that if I should be the one to die, I would almost certainly go directly to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. Why? Because according to the Southern Baptist preacher who yelled all the chapel sermons at the sleep-away church camp I attended with my cousin the summer after third grade, I hadn’t been properly baptized. One way ticket to a burning lake of fire, obviously.

I’m not going to church-bash here. I was raised in a church that did not adhere to the Turn or Burn agitation of some Protestant denominations. But when you’re a kid, and you have been raised since birth to revere clergy and to believe that every word of the Bible is literally true, hearing about how I would be physically tortured for all eternity when I died kept me up at night every night for three years. What if that guy was right, and my parents and pastor were wrong? That’s a story for another essay. 

Just know that I haven’t always been so hopeful or open-hearted about death. I’m not Protestant anymore, and I no longer believe in literal hell. My husband and I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy 6 years ago. One of the most healing and mind-blowing things I learned since becoming Orthodox is that the Eastern church has never embraced a doctrine of literal hell or eternal torment. The early church, and for millenia afterwards, the Eastern church, has embraced the mystery of God’s justice and perfect goodness with both arms around the assurance that we worship a Good God, who loves every single one of us. For eternity.

That’s what we teach our daughter. 

It’s not easy for me to talk about death with my kiddo, but it has gotten easier. Once you are not trying to tightrope across a narrative that the all-loving God who created you and pandas and tree peonies is the same God who would damn most humans to hell, the cognitive dissonance tumbles away in the wind. So does the fear. 

I can be more honest about what I believe, and what I don’t know about death and what happens after we die. None of us really knows, of course. But I have spent more time thinking about it than most people I know. My mom died eight years after my dad, when I was 31. We talk about Grandma Betty and Grandpa Scott regularly, and my daughter knows that they both were very sick when they died. 

“Do you think your mom and dad will like me when I meet them after I die?”

“Your mom and dad died when they were very sick. But you aren’t going to get sick and die. At least until you are very old and I am a grownup.”

“People don’t get to choose when to die, right? There’s no way for a person to make themselves die, right?” she asked one morning in the car. “God decides when someone will die.” That’s all I could scramble together in that moment, three minutes from turning into her school drop off line. 

“When your mom died, did you ever wish that you could die with her so you wouldn’t have to miss her so much?”

“I didn’t want to die with her. There were so many things I still wanted to do! I wanted to get married, and get a dog, and have a house, and travel and have adventures. I knew I would really, really miss her. But I also know I will see her again, and there are a lot of things I still wanted to do on this Earth, in this life.”

“Yeah. Me too. I don’t think I would want to die when you die, mom. But I think I would miss you too much.” 

“I miss my mom so, so much. And my dad. But I have you, and your dad, and my friends, and Daisy, and so many good and wonderful things here. I’m glad to be here with you, right now.”

“Me too, mom. Just don’t die until you are very, very old.”

“Deal. I’ll do my best.”

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