Religion just comes in so darn handy sometimes — and never more than when someone you love dies. Picturing our grandmother in God's beautiful kingdom, happy and joyful, and awaiting our arrival, is just, well, nice. It's a fantasy so many of us would love to believe, which is precisely why some nonreligious parents feel guilty about not being able to "give" their children the solace of heaven.
"It's hard to see a 5-year-old struggle with mortality," one mom told me. "Part of me wishes I had the 'heaven' out — if only to comfort her."
"I feel bad," said another, "burdening my child with the prospect of no afterlife."
It's understandable. We parents are just so hardwired to protect our children from pain; that's what we do. Yet there is no worse pain than the pain of death, and what can we do about that? We are left struggling to find something — anything —to soften the harsh divide between alive and dead.
But the truth is, child psychologists and grief experts say, religious talk is no gift at all when it comes to addressing death with young children.
Debra Stang, a medical social worker who has specializes in hospice care, has this to say:
"It's been my experience that children don't respond very well to religious explanations of death, even if the family comes from a religious background. 'Grandpa's in heaven' is just too abstract for a young child, especially when he or she went to the funeral and saw Grandpa's body in a casket. One of my families told a child that her deceased mother was an 'angel watching over her,' and the little girl had nightmares for months, thinking that if her mom caught her doing something wrong, she would die, too."
If it were really true that heaven brought comfort, then all religious people would suffer less grief and have less fear of death than nonreligious people do. And that's not the case. A person's faith in God can be entirely divorced from her mourning process or fear of death. The idea of heaven doesn't erase sadness. The here and now is too wonderful, too beautiful — the unknown too terrifying.
Walter G. Meyer, a San Diego writer, suffered three devastating losses in rapid succession when he was 7 and 8 years old. His best friend and two favorite uncles all died within a single 13-month period.
"I was raised Catholic, but my parents platitudes about 'seeing them in heaven' had no meaning and rang hollow," he said. "I didn't want to wait to die to see them again."
Children might hear people say, “Your grandpa went to heaven," "God loved your mommy so much he took her to be with him,” or "God has a plan."
Very religious people don't think twice before saying this stuff, but all these statements, experts say, can have detrimental effects on little kids. Children may wonder why their grandpa would choose to go someplace without them. They may feel guilty that they didn't love their mom enough to keep her alive, or that they are being punished for not giving her enough love. They may wonder why God would make such a horrible plan, and be angry at God for taking their sister or ignoring their most heartfelt prayers. They might think heaven sounds so great, they want to cut to the end and go there right now.
So on top of overwhelming sadness, kids in these situations struggle with feelings of hurt, guilt, anger, fear and confusion. What kind of comfort is that?
For these reasons, and others, religion is not the asset we think it is when addressing the idea of death with kids, says Miriam Jochnowitz, a parent coach and hospice volunteer who blogs at thesingularparent.com.
"Whether you are religious or not," Jochnowitz says, "I believe simplicity and honesty are the best approach. Don't try too hard to say comforting things, but be there to listen."
One of the hardest parts about keeping heaven out of conversations with kids is that it makes death such a true and final thing. But the finality of death is something children must be able to grasp. Until they do, they won't be able to let go of dead loved ones — and that's crucial to their healing.