I didn’t believe in death until I had to explain it to my daughter


Photo by Caroline Hernandez

I slipped between the sheets and rested my belly between us. She turned towards me in the dim light. I could see that her eyes were wet.

“I’ll stay here with you,” I murmured. “Don’t worry. Go to sleep.”

“I’m scared,” she said.

“It’s okay, honey,” I said. “I’ll stay here.”

“I don’t want to die and go into the box,” she said.

“What?”

Seeing death through four-year-old eyes

It was about nine o’clock on a weekday, and Norah and I were lying in the top floor of a cabin bungalow in Pigeon Forge, TN. Massively pregnant, I had resigned myself to this short vacation for the sake of my little girls.

Norah was newly turned four, and Agnes two. At those ages, and in the warm air of April, even a walk down the kitschy streets of Pigeon Forge or through the woods nearby was an excitement.  And there was a hot tub at the bungalow. So we had three days’ employment lined up without expense, and a three-day supply of apples and fruit snacks.

Agnes had fallen asleep the minute her head hit the pack-n-play, but Norah was clearly going to need some adjusting to the new environment. I could hear her up there sniffling, so I hoisted myself up the stairs, telling Justin I’d sleep with her if necessary.

But it wasn’t just the strange house that was on her mind.

“I don’t want to die and go into the box,” she said. “How will Jesus see me to make me alive again if there’s a lid on the box?”

I took a good look at her in the dark. She wasn’t crying four-year-old bedtime tears. Her face was wet, and her eyes were concentrated on the ceiling.

“Are you thinking about that because of Miss Kathy’s box?”

“Miss Kathy’s box had a lid on it, so when Jesus comes to make her alive, he won’t be able to see her. I don’t want to go into a box and be dead,” she said.

“Honey, you don’t need to be afraid of that. When you die, if you love Jesus, you go to be with him right away in your spirit. You won’t be afraid. And then Jesus will make your body alive again, and it doesn’t matter where your body is, he can still make it alive.”

“But I’m afraid to be dead!” she said then, and suddenly she was crying again, heaving four-year-old sobs that disturbed me. I found that I was crying too.

“But, honey… you probably won’t die for a while, though,” I said, trying to get back in control of the situation. “Usually—not always—but usually people get old first and then they die. And you’re very young, so probably you’ll get older and do other things and then die.”

She paused for a moment. “But Giggy is older now,” she said tearfully. “I don’t want Giggy to die.”

“I know, honey,” I said. “She’s really not very old. But Giggy knows Jesus too, so she would go be with him too.”

“What if Daddy died, and you died, and I died, then there would be no one to take care of Agnes? What if the new baby came and there was no one to take care of the new baby? I know. If we are going to die, we should call someone on the phone before we die to come take care of Agnes and the baby.” She took on a resolved look and stopped crying for the first time since I’d laid down.

“Yes, honey—usually people don’t all die at once like that. Usually, it would be just one of us dying and we could make sure there was someone to take care of the children.”

I could feel that I was trying to sanitize it for her. I pictured hospital rooms and nursing homes and tried to preserve the feeling of order and conventionality that death should have. Yes, we die, but so does everybody; it’s done a certain way. We usually know it’s coming, unless there’s an accident.  Most of us can expect to live to old age first, can expect to see our parents and grandparents go and then take our turn. Death was still a platitude for me.

But the terror in her voice and face was testing my platitudes.

“Jesus will make us alive again,” I told her urgently. “He came alive after he died, and he’s promised that we’ll come alive again when we die.”

She was silent. “But I don’t want to be in the box,” she said again. “It would be in the ground and it would be dark, and Jesus wouldn’t be able to see where I was.”

“Jesus always knows where you are. And you’d already be with him. You wouldn’t be awake with your body in the box, so you wouldn’t feel like you were in the box. You’d be in heaven and you’d be very happy to be there.”

She nodded.

But I turned onto my back in the dark and stared at the ceiling myself. It was undeniably, rampantly terrible. I saw the truth in her eyes that I’d not allowed myself to see before: life is not safe at all. This dark thing, death, this mysterious place—it’s coming. I’ve given birth to people who will have to face it. They are caught in something that isn’t sanitary at all. It’s not orderly or conventional. It’s horrifying. It’s unnatural. I worked over the uncomfortable feeling in my mind, the feeling that I was unable to separate my daughter completely from her fear. She had seen it. She had seen that there was something with fangs, something that had the power to enter her world, to demolish it. She took the threat at face value, and she was taking my words of hope at face value as well. They were not platitudes to her. They were instructions.

We talked for nearly an hour. Then I looked up at the ceiling as she dried her face on her pillow and drifted off to sleep, and I prayed in a way that I haven’t prayed since I was an agnostic searching for God.

Please.”

No one was here but him. There was no careful phrasing of theological promises. There was only a plea left on my tongue.

Please, please, please,” I whispered in the dark, squeezing the tears from my eyes. “Let it all be true. Let it be so; reveal yourself to this girl; don’t let this girl down. Let it be true.”

 

Promises from the Unseen God

I’m not sure I believed in death before that night. I’m not sure it was something I hated really, until I had to explain it to my weeping child. The reason I didn’t hate it was that I had never taken seriously the threat it posed.

And I’ve only been allowed to live this way because of my unique historical position. Western 21st century life allows me to sanitize death because here, it is sanitary. We don’t bury half of our babies here. We don’t bury half of our young fathers and mothers here. We don’t watch people die at home and then dress them and lay them in the parlor for friends to come and say goodbye. In fact, we usually bury people after we have had time to become unacquainted with them, after old age or wasting disease has relegated them to professional care.

It has been perfectly possible for me to traipse into my 30s without a real punch in the face from death. He has slipped around the corners of my world, whispering threats that I did not feel were for me.

But they are for me. They are for mine.

In the face of this threat, in the face of this near-certain valley that we will all walk into, promises become more than promises. They become arms that you cling to with both hands, life rafts that you throw your body onto. They become tearful, whispered prayers in the dark.

“Truly, truly, I say to you,” –Jesus said this for weak little children— “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” Paul reminded the Romans. He was talking about something that sounds like magic, something that sounds unreal. But hey—all of this sounds unreal. Death sounds unreal to anyone who’s never seen it. The world was never an ordinary place. It was always full of unseen things riding along with the seen things. Death and resurrection are unnatural in the sense that we don’t see them every day, but they fit right into this place of babies in wombs, invisible bonds of love, legal statements of guilt and innocence. We are always dealing in real but invisible realities, and these realities have always had power over us.

That’s why we became Christians in the first place, isn’t it? It’s because we finally came to the realization that unseen things were as powerful—more powerful—than seen things. We knew our guilt, though it was not quantifiable. We knew that the man described in the Word was the rightful king, though we don’t know what color his eyes are.

We threw ourselves on him because he was good, and a different good than any other good we’d found. But we were always throwing ourselves on the unseen. We were always acknowledging that the world is a more dangerous place than Preschool teachers had let on.

And we simply had to trust to that same person whose goodness was different enough to win our allegiance. This is the Man, the God, who made his promises and sealed them in blood, the Man-God who will absolutely be able to find us even inside of a box:

 

And he will swallow up on this mountain

the covering that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,

and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:7-8)

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