My young son’s first pet died the other day. Along with the tears and the sadness, he now had some questions. Specifically, he wanted to know, where was his pet? And this is when it hit me: it would be so much easier to be a religious parent at this point. Because, instead of saying, “He’s out back, buried in the yard, where he will become part of the Earth again. The grass will grow above him, the deer that come through our yard will eat the grass to live,” I would get to say, “He’s up in heaven where he was greeted with a big hug by Heavenly Father, who then put him in a HUGE field with lots of other friends and tons of toys, all the food he wants, the sun is shining, there are butterflies in the air, and he’ll never be sick again, and he can live forever. And if you’re good enough, when you die, you’ll get to see him again!”
When considering the two answers from the perspective of a little boy, I think it’s pretty clear that the second one is, far and away, the winner. It’s hopeful, soothing, it gives him happy pictures to think of when he’s missing his pet. And as a Mom, seeing his pain over this loss, I just wanted to make it better. And for a second, I envied the moms who would be able to explain their version of animal heaven to their kids, ruffle their hair and take them out for conciliatory ice cream.
But, it would be a lie. A nice lie that would make him feel better, but I would be lying to him, and how would that prepare him for a lifetime of wresting with our mortality? Of course, it wouldn’t. So, I gave him the first answer, and it was NOT satisfactory to him. So, he decided that his pet was going to come back as someone else. My answer to him was, “Some people do believe that, specifically, many Buddhists.” I am a Buddhist who does not believe this, but let that point rest for now.
For while my husband, kids and I can speak freely about what we do or don’t believe, it occurred to me years ago that one or more of the kids might not be able to navigate a finite life. I get this. When I was a child, it was much easier for me to believe that everyone I loved would eventually be reunited for eternity in a paradise with golden streets, no sickness or pain, and all the ice cream you could ever want. The part of my life where I finally had to admit what I did believe–that once one dies it’s lights out–involved a lengthy period of mourning all of the benefits I once thought were mine. But, for me, there came a point where the integrity of what I believed in became more important than the perks of that belief.
So, in the end, my son, who is still under 10, tweaked my version of what happened to his pet to enable him to deal with the loss. Because my job is not to tell him what to believe. I don’t have a book to crack open, to read him quotes about what other people tell him to believe, either.
I don’t know what each of my children will eventually believe. Maybe, like most of us, it will be an evolution through numerous beliefs. That is not for me to say. I can only answer the questions as honestly as I can (which often means “I don’t know”), even if it’s not what will make them happy at the time. Even if it’s not “the better deal” at face value. Because I know that, eventually, my job as a parent is not to make them happy all of the time. My job is to give them the tools to successfully deal with reality. That’s not always easy and frankly, it’s a lot of work. But since I know that this life is my ONLY chance to do what’s right, it’s a job I want to do to the best of my ability.