‘Where’s my Daddy?’
Saskia probably asks this once a week at least now, sometimes more, and often repeatedly in succession in her toddlery sort of way. She’s not upset when she asks – just curious, and enjoying asking a question and getting a response.
Since I first wrote about this in September in the post I knew the day was coming… I have done a LOT of thinking and talking about the subject. And finally, in the last few weeks, I feel I’ve cracked it – I’m comfortable with what to say and what it means. Surprisingly, for an atheist (albeit a rather woolly and fence-sitting one), I’ve decided to say that Ben is in heaven. It wasn’t an easy decision to come to, but here’s how I came to it.
My starting point
So, I wanted to have an answer that she could relate to with her limited understanding of the world, but also I wanted it to be meaningful for me. I didn’t want to just spout cliches that I didn’t believe myself or wouldn’t make sense to her. My belief is that Ben lives on in our hearts and our memories. He is here insomuch that his impact on our lives still affects who we are and how we live our lives – in that way he lives on. I also take a lot of comfort in the idea of him being reabsorbed back into nature, and when I visit his grave at the beautiful woodland burial ground I imagine his ‘spirit’ around me as the leaves rustle in the trees and the birds sing. ‘Spirit’ to me here is a metaphor for love and goodness and connectedness to nature. This probably sounds very vague and a bit wet, but that’s fine, I’m not out to justify my own beliefs here, just to explain my own answer to the question ‘Where’s Daddy?’. But of course I couldn’t say this to her – I’d lose her straightaway in all that abstract stuff. And anyway, this is just what I think, and in her life she’s going to meet lots of people who have very different ideas about where Daddy’s gone, and eventually she’ll want to make up her own mind. So what could I say to her?
‘Heaven’ is a useful word
I first started to seriously consider the option of using the word ‘heaven’ when my friend Janine suggested it on a car journey home from holiday. As someone who works with children and their families she can be quite a wise old bean about bringing up children sometimes – she has a lot of good ideas anyway. So, she suggested that I should tell Sas that Daddy had gone to heaven – cue seriously unconvinced ‘u-huh…’ from me. She explained that when Sas went to school, and even before, she would find herself being asked about her Daddy, and therefore she needed to have a way of saying that her Daddy had died that she was comfortable with and that others would understand. Children in her class might not know the word, but if they told their parents ‘Saskia’s Daddy’s in heaven’, then they would understand and be able to explain to their children as they saw fit. If Saskia has only been told things like ‘he lives in our hearts and memories’, she could get herself into some confusing and uncomfortable conversations, with people misunderstanding what she was saying. This is the last thing I want. I want her to be able to talk about her Daddy with confidence and pride, to put people at ease when she talks about him, so she doesn’t have to see the discomfort in their face when the taboo subject of death is raised. Janine had made a really important point, but I was still uncomfortable with the word ‘heaven’ as it didn’t seem true to my own beliefs.
The taboo of death
The fact is, if I’m looking for a way of saying that Ben has died that is true and uncomplicated, then just that, ‘he’s died’ is the most obvious thing to say. I talked in a post called Squashed snails and dead flies about how surprisingly often a toddler encounters death in their day to day life, largely due to their physical proximity to nature (little ones are so much closer to the ground, and fall on it, crawl on it and study it with unbounded curiosity on a regular basis). Saskia is no stranger to a dead snail or fly. For a moment there I wondered if the simplicity of life and death in nature would help me answer Saskia’s question. But it can’t. Death in nature is brutal. We sweep the dead snail away and swat the fly. I can’t equate Ben’s death to that. Some might say that death is as simple and cold for humans too, but that’s not how I feel about Ben going, and I don’t want Saskia to feel that either. With humans, the bonds that we create and the love we have mean that something of us lives on. We respect their bodies, we cherish their memories.
There’s nothing wrong with saying that Ben has died – it’s what I usually say – but from the lips of a two year old ‘My’s Daddy’s dead’ has a coldness that would shock people. There would be no coldness in her, she’s an innocent, but I would hate for her to see shock or hurt on people’s faces when she spoke to them. This is why, however simple and true they may be, I have chosen not to focus (for now) on the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’ when I talk to her.
‘Heaven’ as a ‘catch-all’
So, I was back to the ‘heaven’ option, but still couldn’t square it with my own beliefs. I don’t believe that Ben is in a place somewhere out there in the universe, with God, Jesus, angels and lots of immortal souls, watching what’s happening here on earth. That’s what heaven means right? Well, more chats with more wise friends, Lizzie and Liam, helped me to see things differently. Why not use the word as a catch-all? It doesn’t have to mean the conventional Christian idea of heaven. After all, translate it into other languages and cultures and it would take on a myriad of different meanings. Why not use the word to mean ‘something peaceful after death’. I don’t know for certain what happens after death, but I strongly believe that it’s nothing to fear. For the atheist in me, ‘heaven’ can mean the peace of a deep sleep, free of pain and worry; and for the new age, circle-of-life side of me, it can mean the peace and beauty of the natural world that he has returned to. In time she will learn that for her grandparents it means something different, and for her aunties and cousins and friends something different still. The unifying factor is that heaven is a lovely and peaceful state or place to be. This appeals to me because I want to bring up a child who can form her own beliefs but is also sympathetic and open to other people’s. Using the word heaven so widely will leave the door open for us to talk about different ideas of the afterlife as she gets older.
Heaven sounds right in a sentence
So having gone through all these thought processes, I was almost decided that ‘He’s gone to heaven’ was the right answer for Saskia’s question. I thought I’d try just one more time my idea of him living in our hearts. I pointed to where her heart was and told her Daddy was there. As I said it I knew it wasn’t going to work, and this was confirmed moments later when we said ‘Daddy’s in my tummy’ (she’s a bit obsessed with her tummy, perhaps because it’s the only bit of her insides that she actually has any concept of!). It confirmed once and for all you have to avoid metaphors altogether or choose them very wisely when dealing with two year olds. So I finally went for it and said ‘He’s in heaven’ and you know what, it just sounded right – it sounds like a place. To Saskia, Daddy’s not here, so he must be somewhere – he is, a place called heaven (And what’s that Mummy? Well, she hasn’t asked that yet – that’s a question for another day…).
She’s started to say it herself now, and it sounds ok. She said it to my friend Marylka at the dinner table when somebody’s Daddy was mentioned – ‘My Daddy’s in heaven now’ she said in a rather matter of fact way. Tears came to Marylka’s eyes, but I just felt so proud of her. I hope she will always be as eloquent and happy to talk about her Daddy as she grows up.