For our faith and parenting series today we are joined by the incredibly talented Michelle DeRusha. Michelle lives in Nebraska with her husband Brad and two boys—contemplative Noah and red-haired Rowan. She writes a monthly column for the Lincoln Journal Star and his a frequent contributor to The High Calling. Michelle is working on a memoir that I’ve had the chance to take a peek at, and, let me tell you it’s amazing. She blogs about finding and keeping faith in the everyday at Graceful.
“Mommy, do you think you miss people when you’re in Heaven?” he asks, calling the question over his shoulder as we pedal across the empty parking lot.
“You mean the people we leave behind on Earth?” I ask. My eyes are on his back. His shoulder blades jut sharply beneath his tee-shirt.
“Yeah,” says my 10-year-old son, Noah. “Do you think when you’re in Heaven you miss the people still on Earth? Because, you know, it seems like you would.”
The question springs out of nowhere. They always do. The boys’ paternal grandparents have both died in the last 18 months, and, as a result, I’ve fielded dozens of questions about illness, dying, death, God, Heaven and Hell – most of which I can’t answer. At least not definitively.
When Haukebo, as my kids called her, was in her last days of hospice care, the boys were curious about the physical aspects of death.
“What happens to her body?” Rowan, my six-year-old, asked me one afternoon from the backseat of the minivan as we drove to the soccer field.
When I began to explain the notion of the body versus the soul, he interrupted me. “No. I mean what willhappen to her body? Where will it go after she dies?”
I’d been hoping to avoid this issue entirely. I didn’t relish the thought of delving into an explanation of burial and cremation with a six- and ten-year-old.
“Well,” I paused, glancing in the rear view mirror. Both boys stared sullenly out the windows. “Sometimes the body goes into the ground, in a place called a cemetery, where people can visit and bring flowers and talk to the person they love.”
I knew my mother-in-law wanted to be cremated, and I didn’t want to mislead the boys, so I pressed on. “And other times, the body is cremated, which means it goes into a fire.” I decided not to mention the ashes.
Rowan’s head snapped to attention, eyes wide. “What? Haukebo’s going into a fire?” he howled. “I don’t want that!” Noah stared out the window, unresponsive.
“It’s okay, honey, it’s okay,” I soothed, panic fluttering in the pit of my stomach. “She won’t feel it because she’ll be in Heaven with God. Her body won’t feel the fire.”
I held my breath, gripping the steering wheel with two hands. The conversation turned to Super Mario Bros., the boys laughing over their favorite characters. I drove to the soccer field, swallowing tears.
As we’ve navigated death, grief and loss, I’ve learned that I can’t ever be totally prepared for the questions and discussions that will come my way. I want to have all the correct psychologically and theologically sound responses ready so I can present them to my kids with confidence, assured that I won’t damage them or leave them with lifelong fears or doubts. I want a cheat sheet I can pull from my purse, run my finger down to the appropriate topic – cremation, yes, here we go – and recite the perfect answer.
Frankly, I want someone else to answer their questions – a trained professional, someone I can hold responsible. But they don’t want the answers from someone else. My boys want the answers from me. So I muddle along, never knowing when the next question will come or what it will be. I pray a lot, asking God for guidance and the right words. And I answer, “I don’t know” more often than I’d like, admitting to my kids that many of the questions they ask, I still ask, too.
Noah stops pedaling so I can catch up with him, and we coast side-by-side under a canopy of oak leaves. “I think maybe we won’t miss people too much when we’re in Heaven,” I tell him, “because, you know, missing is kind of a sad feeling, and I don’t think we’ll be sad in Heaven.”
He pedals quietly. I can tell he’s thinking about my answer.
“I don’t know much about Heaven for sure, honey, except that God and Jesus are there, and Papa and Haukebo,” I add as we pick up speed, cruising under the A Street bridge. “I think we’ll find out more someday when we get there.”
It seems like I offer that answer – the “someday” answer – a lot, because often, it’s the only answer I’ve got.