My Last Will and Testament (Sort Of)

WhenYouWereFive

One thing about being a nonreligious parent is that I have no expectation of an afterlife. I believe that when I leave the universe, I leave it for good. And whatever "spirit" I have survives only in the memories of the people I love. Which is enough. Honestly, it is.

But it also makes me hyper-aware of what I leave behind. And that is especially true when it comes to my daughter. For the first few years of her life, I couldn't help but be concerned that I would die, and all of what we'd experienced together would be lost because she would be too young to remember of any it. She might not know how much I loved her. She might not know how special she was.

So I started making books. I guess you could call them scrapbooks, although they're as much about the stories as the pictures. In them I pour all the funny anecdotes and quotes I have amassed over the years (usually found on scraps of paper scattered throughout the house, but also culled from my Facebook page and Twitter feed). I put in conversations (like the one she had with my husband about what God looks like), essays (about what she was like at that particular age) and personal messages (that center on my feelings for her.)

At first, she ignored the books, of course. She was too young to really understand what they meant. But now that she's 7, that's no longer true. These books are some of her most prized possessions. In fact, I've started to print two copies: one for her room and one for keeping. The copies in her room are already quite tattered; that's how often she opens them. It's hilarious how little she remembers of things that happened only a few years ago. She thinks the things she said and did and thought are terribly cute and funny. Sometimes I hear her telling her friends the stories she has read in her books.

In a way, these books are my last will and testament. Much more important to me than any instructions I'm leaving behind about money. (Although she may not think so one day!) Everything of any consequence that has happened to us is included in these pages. Everything wonderful and insightful and just plain funny that has come out of her mouth is listed. Everything I want her to remember — it's all there.

I make one of these books every year for Maxine's birthday, and every year when I finish it and send it off to print, there's this little voice in the back of my head that says, "Now I can die happy."

 

'Day of the Dead' Might Just Be the Best Holiday Yet

Looking at all the Halloween decorations in our neighborhood yesterday, my daughter points to the 1,657th fake gravestone with "R.I.P." etched on the front and asks, "Why do people do that?" "Because," I say, "it's scaaaary."

"It's not scary," she says. "It's sad. People die, and it's sad."

I laughed at her insight, but now that I've been researching the "Day of the Dead" (which starts today! Happy Day of the Dead!), I realize I missed an opportunity for what could have been a pretty fascinating talk about death. In other words, I blew it. Not the first time.

Death is one of those subjects that can trigger a million emotions. Sadness is one, but so is fear, anxiety, guilt, excitement, love and even laughter. I know laughter seems out of place — my daughter would give me one of those "Mom, that's crazy talk" looks if she were here — but it's true. And we need look no further than the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) to see that. Although based on a rather serious idea, honoring our dead loved ones, the Day of the Dead has been infused with sheer, unadulterated fun for thousands of years. Gifts for the dead? Yes! Candy skulls, face paint and costumes? Oh, yeah! Parties and dancing? Most definitely. That's not to say the meaning is lost. Not at all. The Day of the Dead is still a time to think about lost loved ones; wash and decorate grave sites; build shrines to the dearly departed. Often, the shrines include things that the dead people loved or enjoyed during their lives — which is probably why tequila gets poured on top of so many gravestones!

This is all kind of genius when you think about it. It gives us a chance to pay homage to people's lives, rather than focus on their deaths. It associates death with positive memories, not tears. It encourages us to stay connected to the dead in ways that make us feel good, not bad. It's all incredibly healthy-sounding, isn't it?

Of course, all this — as well as Halloween — now carry religious connotations, as they are celebrated in conjunction with All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day (Nov. 1 and 2).

Halloween is literally translated as "All Hallow's Eve" or "All Saint's Eve," which refers to All Saint's Day (which is today! Happy All Saint's Day!). This is a mostly Catholic holiday honoring all dead saints, as opposed to all the days scattered throughout the year that celebrate individual saints (St. Patrick, St. Valentine, etc). All Soul's Day is tomorrow (Happy All Soul's Eve! Okay, now this is getting ridiculous) and celebrates all non-sainted but faithful Christians.

As for how Day of the Dead became a religious holiday, the Arizona Republic offers the brief but fascinating back story here.

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls... The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. "The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic," said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. "They didn't separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures." However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan. In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Religious or not, I would love love love it if people would include me in their Day of the Dead rituals after I die. Just for the record, though, I prefer scotch over tequila.

P.S. Thanks to my photographer-friend Veronica Jauriqui for her amazing photos from a 2010 Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles. To find a DOTD celebration near you, click here.

 

12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part II)

Grim Reaper 2

I'm back with again with my Grim Reaper friend. I like that little guy. Just wish he were more cheerful. Anyway, in my last post I described six mistakes parents make when talking death with kids. Well, apparently, we screw up A LOT because here's a whole other six:

7. We yada-yada over the science part.

Talking about decomposing bodies may seem a ghoulish proposition, but the actual science of death is not only fascinating to children (particularly preschoolers), but can be comforting, too. It's true that adults tend to focus their worry on the emotional aspects of death — how it feels to lose someone we love, for instance. But children of a certain age aren’t as consumed by the grief aspect of death. They are still working on how things die (“Could I have caused it?”) and how it feels to be dead (“Will I be lonely?”) This is why it's so important to explain to kids how we humans work — how our beating hearts are what keep us alive, and that there is a difference between bodies and consciousness.

“Most children understand the concept of something that has 'stopped working completely and can't be fixed,'” social worker Debra Stang tells us. “It's also important to reassure children that a dead person doesn't breathe, wake up, go to sleep, or need to go to the bathroom, doesn't hear or see anything, doesn't get hungry or cold or scared, and doesn't feel any pain.” But do remember,adds parent coach Miriam Jochnowitz, there is a limit to how much science to impose on a child. "It can be helpful just to understand more about what happened,” she says. “But follow the child's lead. Do not expound if they are not interested."

8. We expect kids (and adults!) to react in a prepackaged way.

For most of us, grief has a certain look to it: tears, pain, prolonged depression. So when people react to death in a way that runs counter to our image, we think it’s strange. We assume something is wrong. We worry. And it’s no wonder — given the popularity of author Elisabeth Kubler-RossFive Stages of Grief, which was introduced in her book “On Death and Dying.” Kubler-Ross said that the stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, and that most people go through one or all of the first four stages before reaching the last. Over the last 15 years, this hypothesis has informed how we, as a society, view children's reactions to death, as well as our own.

The problem, according to modern studies, is that it’s all bogus. When it comes to the loss of a loved one, grief doesn’t work in "stages" at all. In his incredibly enlightening book, “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” author George Bonanno says that resilience — not denial, anger, etc. — is what truly defines grief. His scientific studies, conducted over 20 years, show that most people weather the deaths of loved ones relatively quickly and thoroughly. Even weeks after devastating losses, many are able to experience genuinely positive emotions, even laughter. And this is not denial or drugs doing the work — but rather their own natural resiliency, Bonanno says. Personality has a lot to do with grief reactions, of course, and there are those who experience grief in the Kubler-Ross-created image. But, in general, studies show, grief has an oscillating pattern. It comes and goes in "waves” — which is what, mercifully, allows us to take care of ourselves and those around us.

At the risk of making this too long (I know, too late), I'll just add this: Bonanno's philosophy is that we humans are a lot more resilient than we think we are. We are hardwired to adapt, and that's what we do. Most of us adapt much more quickly than we think possible — which is both good and healthy. No one should be surprised when a person finds joy and happiness soon after the loss of a loved one. “It’s okay to cry,” we tell our kids all the time. But sometimes we forget that it’s okay not to cry, too.

9. We forget to seek help

Sometimes we just can’t do it. No matter how much we want to, talking about death with our kids is a challenge we can’t face. Maybe we have suffered a particularly devastating loss recently, or maybe WE'VE JUST GOT SOME ANXIETY ISSUES, OKAY?! Whatever the reason, there is no shame is handing off the baton to someone (another adult, a therapist) or something (the Internet, the library) better suited to guide our children in positive ways. By showing our children that they have lots of resources and support available to them, we ensure that when WE aren’t around, they will still have their needs met.

There are some excellent books out there for broaching the subject of death with very young children. My personal favorite is still “When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death,” by Laurie Krasny Brown, which I wrote about here. But I also am crazy about an oldie called “About Dying” by Sara Bonnet Stein. It’s a book for kids and parents to read together, but also has some great information in smaller print off to the side. “When a Pet Dies,” by Fred Rogers, is also awesome (Did Mr. Rogers ever do anything that wasn’t awesome?) and “The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages” by Leo Buscaglia is also really nice. None of these books has a religious bent, by the way.

11. We’re afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

No one, not one person in all of history, has ever known for sure what happens when we die. So why is that we parents have such a hard time admitting we don't know? When it comes to death — and, frankly, religion in general — we sometimes feel we must be on one side or another in order to maintain stability and consistency in children's lives. But this is one area where saying “I don’t know” will never be seen as a sign of weakness or ignorance.

What our children choose to believe as far as heaven/afterlife/reincarnation really has nothing to do with us anyway. We can state what we believe to be true, and we can state what other people believe to be true (to the best of our knowledge), but to think we are “teaching” them what happens after we die is kind of ridiculous. No one can teach it because no one knows. Telling our children we're confused is okay. Telling them we keep changing our minds is okay, too. And throwing up our hands and telling them we haven't got the slightest idea what's going to happen — dammit, that's okay, too.

10. We lie.

This one comes courtesy of a mother who responded to my survey earlier this year. "When it comes to death,” the woman wrote, “I have allowed my children to believe in a ‘heaven,’ for lack of a better word. I felt that allowing them to believe that ‘people go on to happy place surrounded by loved ones, waiting for other loved ones to join them someday’ gives them comfort about losing people. Heck, it comforts me to make up a place like that when I am grieving also."

It’s not uncommon, as I said in No. 6, to gravitate toward the heaven narrative. Even nonreligious parents have a hard time with this one. But we can’t — as in CAN NOT — “make up” an afterlife and ask our kids to believe in it. This is just not cool. As author Earl A. Grollman says: "Don't tell children what they will need to unlearn later." There's nothing wrong with wanting kids to know about all the "afterlife options" out there, but why not refer them to those who believe? A grandparent, perhaps, or a beloved aunt? By all means, there is no harm (most of the time!) in encouraging our kids to get religious input from other family members or friends, but don't lie. The stakes are too high, the potential to hurt our kids too great. The litmus test is this: Are we telling our kids the same thing we would tell a fellow adult? If not, it's time to come clean.

12. We don’t talk about dead people in happy terms.

After a person dies, the only thing we have of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don't talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all. But honoring our dead and keeping them "with us" is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort.

Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consumed at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping — not just with their deaths but with death in general. Giving memories of our dead a happy "place" among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.

12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death (Part I)

Grim Reaper

Let's face it, talking about the Big D with the little humans we love more than anything in the world ain't easy. All we want to do is protect our kids — is that so wrong? — and here comes Mother Nature to screw it all up: Hey, guess what, darling? I'm going to die! But don't worry, because you're going to die, too! In fact, everyone you've ever loved or will ever love is going to DIE! But don't mind that. Let's go get some ice cream.

Yeah, it pretty much sucks — and it sucks for every parent on the planet. But, believe it or not, that doesn't mean it has to be an awful or depressing or scary topic of conversation. In fact, talks about death can be some of the most rich and textured talks you'll ever have with your kids.

Here are the first six of 12 common mistakes parents make in talking to their kids about death. The other second six are here.

1. We wait until tragedy strikes to start up the conversation.

It never feels like the right time to broach the subject of death with our kids, which is why many of us put off the initial talk until tragedy strikes and the conversation is forced upon us. Unfortunately, by that point, we're stressed and sad; our kids are confused and scared; and our minds are flooded with all the things we need to get done. Coping is often the best we can do.

Having thoughtful, hopeful conversations with our children about the the cycle and meaning of life requires a clear mind. So, before something happens, be on the lookout for any and all excuses to have these talks. A dead bird in the yard can be a fantastic point of entry. Taking the time to explore the bird's death, what "dead" means, and why the bird died can open up those lines of communication in remarkably effective ways. Of course, many parents put off these conversation because they're children are young and/or they themselves are sensitive to the subject. Each child is different, of course, but generally kids want to hear about death much earlier than we expect. We know they're ready when they start asking questions: "Why is that bird not moving?" "What happened to the evil queen?" "Where did your grandma go?"

2. We use euphemisms. 

Passed away. Taken away. Resting place. Went to sleep.  Left. These terms are fine for adults, who know the score, but they’re terrible for kids, who might find it really damn creepy that their uncle was "taken away." These terms, as well as many of them provided by religious imagery, are just too abstract for a young children, says Earl Grollman, who wrote the excellent book Talking about Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child.

Instead, use the real words: Die. Death. Kill. Murder. Suicide. Coffin. Cremation. Funeral. When we speak directly and specifically — even if the words seem sharp and awkward in our mouths at first — we avoid painful confusion and misunderstandings, Grollman says.

3.  We talk too much.

Damn those awkward silences and our need to fill them. As I mentioned last week, we parents want nothing more than to comfort our kids. Soothing them is in our nature. To hold back from saying things that will make a child feel better is one of the more difficult aspects of parenting. But when it comes to talking about death, experts say, less is more.

Explain death as simply as possible, then step back and let listening take over. Nods and hugs are fine, but parents who try too hard to comfort with words can end up explaining more than than a child wants, or is ready, to hear. When in doubt, try turning the questions back on the child, suggests Grollman. When a child asks: “What did Grandma look like after she died?,” a parent might answer: “What do you think she looked like?" This gives us insight into our children’s imaginations and helps us guide the conversations where they need to go.

4. We shield kids from the death of pets.

One could argue that part of the reason we have beloved pets is to familiarize us with the idea of death, let us "practice" mourning, and remind us that life goes on after they die —and the pain does lessen. But, so often, we shield our children from the reality of a pet death — and, therefore, pass up the chance to introduce our children to the very real sadness that comes with it. We also miss the opportunity to let our kids build up their own coping mechanisms.

It may seem harsh, but encouraging our children to be present when our pets are euthanized and/or allowing our children to be involved in the mourning process with us (rather than, say, leaving the room to cry), we are teaching our kids how to mourn and move on. We are teaching them it's okay to cry, and that grief — no matter how painful — is not life-threatening.

5. We don’t give our kids anything to do.

When your children lose someone they love, they benefit from being brought into the fray, as it were, rather than sequestered away from it. Modern therapists not only condone taking young children to funerals — they encourage it. Unless the child refuses to go (which rarely happens, I'm told), kids should be able to witness and participate in the catharsis that funerals bring. Also, children need confirmation of death much more so than adults do. Without it, they may view death as something mysterious and temporary, rather than a real, permanent event. They may even await a loved one's return.

"Participation helps soften the pain, enhance the healing process, and provide an opportunity for acceptance and transformation," says Lynn Isenberg, the author of a book called Grief Wellness: The Definitive Guide to Dealing with Loss"When a child can participate in a loved one's passing, it creates an action, a sense of doing, a sense of purpose, around the loss. A child can plan a ceremony, create a ritual, write words to share with family and/or friends, design an (activity) around healing... especially if the activity was directly related to the person who has died."

6.  We view heaven as a necessary solace

Even nonreligious parents have a hard time leaving heaven out of death talks with their kids. We use heaven (yes, even Doggie Heaven) to put a positive spin on something heart-wrenchingly painful. But when we do that, we are at risk of blurring the line between heaven and nature. There is nothing "bad" in nature. (This may be the one thing religious and nonreligious people agree on!) When we offer up heaven as a knee-jerk reaction (rather than a true and honest belief), we lose out on showing kids the true and honest glory of nature. Things are born, they live and they die — and it is this necessary cycle that makes the world so freaking beautiful. Life and death are intricately related. If we don’t have death, we don’t have life. There is no splitting them apart. And if we think about it for any amount of time at all, we realize we wouldn't want to.

Heaven would be awesome, no doubt about it. But there also is solace in the predictable logic of science. Reminding a child that everything ends and dies, and that this is the nature of the universe, can and does help, says Eve Eliot, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher living from New York. For example, she often cites "the end of the day when the sun goes down, the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the time in (kids') lives when they have to leave the comfort of being home with their moms and enter school for the very first time. The very next inhale will be 'lost' on the very next exhale."

A side note: I suppose a great many religious people will take issue with No. 6. As they see it, the point of life is to follow divine law (which commands that they be a good person, etc.) so as to ensure a heavenly place beside the Big Guy Upstairs. But many of us nonreligious types believe that dead people simply go back to the same nonexistence they experienced (or didn't experience) before they were born. We don't become souls — we become memories. So perhaps the point of living isn't to get somewhere else but to collect memories that make us happy and "give" memories that make other people happy. Being a good person is vital in this scenario — because if other peoples' memories are the last vestiges of ourselves that we leave behind, we want to make those memories as good as we possibly can.

Click here for Part II,  and here to find out why heaven is rarely helpful when talking with kids about death.

Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

Heaven

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.

Click here for 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death

 

Talking to Kids About Death Need Not Be Depressing

IMG_3726

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a chapter of my book dealing with death. A cheery subject, I know, but an important one —  given that death is a primary reason religion exists at all.

My goal is to make death an easier topic for parents to explore with their kids. What should parents say, and when should they say it? How can they help children cope with the idea of death without the comforting arms of religion.

So far, my research involves reading lots of books with titles about death, dying, mourning and loss. You can see why I put this chapter off for so long. As it turns out, though, the research is not nearly as depressing as it sounds. In fact, it's felt quite liberating — the way it often does when you confront things that scare you.

I’ve also begun showing kids' books on the subject to my daughter, Maxine  — who, at 6, seems to be at the perfect age to have these discussions. It's been fun to gauge how she reacts, what questions she brings up, and how comfortable I am answering them.

The most successful of the books I've found so far is When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown. It's a children’s book that explains death in plain, honest terms. Maxine showed an immediate interest in the book, and wanted to read it very slowly so she could carefully consider each picture. She did ask questions, although none were out of the ordinary:

“What’s wrong with him?” she asked, pointing to a man lying in a hospital bed.

“Why is she mad?” she said about a girl who was working through feelings of anger after her grandfather died.

“What is that thing?” she asked when we got to a page featuring a coffin.

When Dinosaurs Die seems to be aimed at kids who have gone through a recent loss, but it's also perfectly well-suited as an introduction to death for kids who've not yet been struck by personal tragedy. You might think it a bit morbid at first, but it's actually very refreshing to talk about something so basic to human nature, and to treat it as just another subject.

The book doesn't pull back in the ways you might think, either. I was impressed, for instance, that the author touches on suicide and murder. I’m not sure I would have thought to mention those especially gritty sorts of deaths. But the fact that she does, and the way she does it, is just excellent.

Other than the title, which sounds a bit too much like a book on dinosaur extinction, the book is great for anyone with kids ages 5 to, let's say, 9 or 10ish. Okay, now your recommendations. Got any?

An Interview with Matt Logelin: Widower, Dad and Nonbeliever

Two-Kisses-for-Maddy

Speaking of death — and I know you’re probably about ready for me to take a break from the subject, but hang with me just a bit longer — who’s heard of Matt Logelin? For those who haven't, Matt is a blogger and author (www.mattlogelin.com) whose wife, Liz, died the day after delivering the couple’s first child in March 2008. The child, a baby girl named Madeline, had been born seven weeks premature and was being cared for in the ICU while Liz remained on bed rest for 24 hours. Given the go-ahead to finally hold Madeline, Liz excitedly rose from her hospital bed, sat down in a wheelchair, complained of being light-headed, and died of a pulmonary embolism. 

The story is tragic (um, obviously) but Matt’s blog — which he began before his wife’s death — is fascinating and somehow manages to be surprisingly uplifting. Matt wrote a book called Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love (published April 2011), in which he recounts the strange and surreal collision of birth and death in a 27-hour period.

I interviewed Matt last summer after I learned he, too, was a nonreligious parent and that he sometimes has to deal with religious readers who believe they know better how to console Madeline than he does.

Last May, in fact, Matt was forced to confront one such reader at a book signing in Maryland. The situation, which he recounted in a blog post, began when the reader couldn’t seem to fathom that Madeline would never be told her mother was still "with us" — residing somewhere in heaven, waiting to hold her little girl once again. The reader waited in line to have his book signed and then, when he reached the signing table, asked Madeline directly if she wanted to know “where her mother really is.”

Appalling, right?

Lucky for Matt, his daughter — then 3 — was in a bad mood that afternoon, and refused to listen to the guy.

Lucky for the reader, Matt was in a good mood and didn’t deck him.

Actually, Matt is a genuinely kind person who understands that even though this reader was acting completely inappropriately, the guy's heart was probably in the right place.

“He’s really concerned about my soul," Matt said. “That’s a really nice thing.”

“Sir,” he explained to the man. “She’s 3 years old. She’s not willing to speak to you. If you want to try again in 10 years, go ahead.”

Then he told the man to go away “in the nicest way possible.”

He even signed his book.

Matt, who described himself as lapsed Catholic, said he lost his faith in God somewhere around age 7, after hearing that a friend of his, a Hindu boy, was going to go to hell because he didn’t believe in Jesus. The Hindu boy’s family was really nice, Matt said, and he remembers thinking: “That’s not okay. That’s really awful.”

Since his wife’s death, he said, others in his family have turned away from religion, as well, so there’s no conflict whatsoever within his own family.

It’s hard to imagine anything tougher than caring for a newborn while mourning a loss like that. It’s hard to imagine how painful it must be to look at his daughter in the eyes and tell her that she is never, ever going to meet her mother. Not now. Not ever.

But that’s exactly what Matt does.

From the time Madeline was days old, in fact, Matt began talking to her about Liz’s death — using the same words he would use with an adult. He steered clear of euphemisms. He didn’t try to offer explanations where none existed. He talked about Liz in the past tense.

“Your mom died,” he told her during those first weeks, and again dozens of times after that. “That means she’s not here. She gave birth to you. She loved you, and she was really excited to hold you.”

He said it felt good to know that this narrative, this message, would be consistent as she got older. There would be no confusion, no surprises.

Today, Maddie is doing great. A little, toe-headed beauty, she’s heathy, well-adjusted, spirited, and funny. And Matt, too, has managed to move forward. He has a serious girlfriend. He continues to write. He is a happy, devoted father.

But, of course, it’s clear from blog posts like this one that he’ll never break completely free of the sadness of his loss.

Hell, even if he were inclined to forget Liz — which is highly unlikely — it would never happen. One need only to look at his daughter to understand why.

Maddie, as fate would have it, is a spitting image of her mother.

Consolation (Without Religion) for a Grieving Child

Last week, an 8-year-old boy in Seal Beach, Calif., was orphaned in one of the worst ways I can imagine: His mother was shot to death and his father charged with capital murder. In a case that has gained national attention, Scott Dekraai is accused of killing his ex-wife in a murderous rampage — fueled, at least in part, by a custody dispute over their son. As police tell it, Dekraai armed himself with guns and stormed the salon where his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, worked as a stylist. He allegedly shot her, then turned the gun on eight other people. All but one died.

The rampage occurred less than a mile from McGaugh Elementary School, where Dekraai's son was a second-grader. At the time of Dekraai's arrest, the boy was sitting in his principal’s office, waiting for one of his parents to take him home.

The tragedy struck a personal chord for me. McGaugh is one of the six elementary schools in my daughter’s school district, which means the 8-year-old might very well attend middle school with my daughter someday. I suppose that's why I can't stop thinking about how hard it can be to explain death to a child, and how much harder it must be to explain this particular death to this particular child.

On Tuesday, I wrote a pitch to a website that matches writers with experts in various fields. I explained that I was working on a book for nonreligious parents and wanted advice on consoling grieving children without religion. I got dozens of responses. I’ll share what I've learned in a future post, but I can tell you that most of the respondents said consoling kids without invoking religious imagery is not only possible — it's preferable.

The one respondent who disagreed had this to say: “What a truly sad idea. It would be far better to write a book about how to help parents find Christ and tap into the healing power of His love during difficult times. Positively In Christ!”

I don't know what "Positively in Christ" is supposed to mean, but I do wonder whether religion — the foundation of so many heartfelt condolences throughout the world —  can absorb a bit of the sadness suffered by children.

Some children, maybe. But the Seal Beach boy? Unlikely. After all, would picturing your mom alongside God in heaven offer any solace if it meant you then had to picture your father burning in hell? Would it ease your mind to be told that your mom's murder during a custody battle was part of “God’s plan,” or would such a revelation serve only as a bizarre side note to your real-life horror?

I don’t claim to know.

But I do know this: Whether this boy is surrounded by religious or nonreligious messages, there is hope. Lots of it.

An Orphan Who Overcame the Odds

One of the most remarkable people I ever met was a boy named Charlie Schockner, whose mother was slashed to death in 2004 by a hitman hired by his father.

I met Charlie in 2007 while covering Manfred Schockner's murder trial for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. By then, Charlie was 17 and had developed a justifiable hatred for his dad, who had abused him and his mom both physically and emotionally for years before the murder. When the judge sentenced Manfred to life in prison without parole, Charlie bucked back in his seat and pumped his fist. He was grateful to have justice for his mother and relieved to be forever free of his father's grasp.

Charlie had the support of an amazing extended family, who scooped him into their lives without missing a beat. Less than a year after he’d moved to Georgia, I got word from his uncle that Charlie was doing wonderfully both in school and in life. Today, he is a strikingly handsome college student with, according to his Facebook page, more than 700 friends. He speaks four languages, works at a tea shop, and describes himself as always having a smile on his face.

When I think of Dekraai's son, and the profound sadness and confusion he must be feeling today, I am comforted not by God, not by Jesus, not by Buddha, Allah or Brahman — but by Charlie Schockner, a victim of tragedy who managed to put the past behind him.

As I write this, I do hope the little guy in Seal Beach is doing okay. But more than that, I hope that by the time my daughter meets him, he will have benefited enormously from the love of those around him and, like Charlie, be facing the future with a smile on his face.

To contribute to The “Seal Beach Victims’ Fund,” you may contact the Seal Beach Chamber of Commerce or the Seal Beach Bank of America. The Chamber is at 201 Eighth St., Suite 120, Seal Beach. The bank is at 208 Main St., Seal Beach. The ZIP for both is 90740.