Home > Communication, Death, Family, Love, Parenting, Personal > Li’l D’s letter to God

Li’l D’s letter to God

My four-year-old son first asked me about death some months ago.

Before he was old enough to ask more complicated questions, I devised all kinds of strategies for discussing serious subjects like death with him. I had Big Plans.

As Li’l D got older, I saw that he was capable of guiding me through these discussions by asking about the things he wanted to know. I decided my approach would be to answer his questions honestly, and threw my Big Plans to the wind. The only part I kept was my intention to be as candid as my mom had once been.

“Your mom is dead?” he asked one day as we drove to his preschool.

“Yes, sweetheart, she is.”

“I’m going to find her and help you get her back.”‘

“That’s not a very good idea.”

“Why not?”

“She’s buried. That means her body was put into the earth, so now she’s covered with lots and lots of dirt.”

“Well, we can get bery big shovels and get her back.”

“Policemen would arrest us if we tried that.”

“Why?”

“Because dead bodies get germs that can hurt living people like us. They’re trying to keep us safe.”

“Oh.”

We had variations of the same conversation for several weeks. Some were about death in general, but many mirrored the first one with one slight tweak: Li’l D would insist my mom wasn’t dead but simply visiting the doctor. We just needed to find the doctor and all would be well.

darkness & light

Then very Li’l D and my mom shortly before she died

I knew he would someday put two and two together, realizing that the fact “everyone dies” meant that someday I will die, too. I still remember the moment I realized this. I was seven or eight years old, and had just awakened from a nap when it hit me: If Mom is going to go to heaven someday, that means she’s going to have to die first. Which means she won’t be here with me.

I remembered that epiphany as I sat with my mom in the days before she died. Her head rested constantly just feet from where mine had in the moment I realized I would lose her someday.

My mom believed in Jesus, and she believed in heaven. Her instruction on death reflected the goodness of these twin beliefs.

My beliefs are less settled.

I am intellectually dubious about religion, and religious mythology. At the same time, I recognize human understanding of the universe and what might exist beyond it encompasses but a fragment of all that is.

When I take away all that I think, I find what I believe: that there is something binding together everything in the universe, and that it is a positive force even when individual circumstances hurt. I feel this profoundly with every step, and every breath. The feeling doesn’t care one bit about anything I might think.

And so I wondered: When my son realizes I’ll die someday, what will I tell him?

The day came sooner than I expected. In the day or two before my final guest post went live at DrGreene.com, I missed my mom as much with every waking thought as I had when she first died. When I first realized she would die someday.

I didn’t tell Li’l D what I was feeling, or thinking, but the somber turn of my thoughts seemed to reach directly into his own.

He was much quieter than usual on the drive home. He asked some general questions about death, then sat in silence.

“What are you thinking about, kiddo?”

“Nothing,” he told me, before returning to pondering something.

After I read his bedtime story, he hit me with it.

“Mom. Are you going to die someday?”

With a chasm in my heart, I tried to answer evenly. “Yes, sweetie, I am.”

“But I don’t want you to die.”

“I know. I don’t want to die, either. I want to stay here with you forever. But you know what we talk about, about being in each others’ hearts? We’ll always be with each other, always, whether or not we can hug each other anymore.”

His lips were set in a frown, and his chin quivered as he started crying. His tears opened the floodgate to my own. I opened my arms for a hug, and we cried together as he climbed into my lap.

“Am I going to die, too?” he asked quietly.

“Yes, someday, hopefully a very, very long time from now, after you’ve had your own kids and grandkids.”

He told me all the reasons he didn’t want to die. I can’t remember them all, but the one he emphasized most was that he didn’t want to leave his toys behind. I told him there’d be other kids who’d appreciate them, and that sharing them would be one of his gifts to them.

I didn’t know what I’d say about death until he asked. When actually asked, there was no contest between what I think and what I feel. I told him what felt right, not because it was easier or kinder or for any other reason than that it was what I felt:

Our bodies die, but our souls live forever. When our bodies die, God calls our souls–which are like the air in a balloon–back. Bodies can only go so many places. But souls, they can go anywhere. They can fly anywhere you dream. I think maybe God only gives us a little time here because he doesn’t want us to spend too long believing we can only do the things our bodies allow us to do here.

He knows from prior conversations that his father and I have different ideas about “God,” and that I refer to “God” as “he” only because of limitations of human language.

This explanation turned his focus from the idea of death to God’s reasoning. He asked bunches of questions I told him I couldn’t answer for sure, just guess at. As he kept fretting, I told him one of the few things I know for absolutely certain is that worrying too much about what happens then makes us miss a lot of wonder present now.

Before he fell asleep, still sniffling and snuggled close to me, he asked if I would help him write a letter to God the next day. I said I would, and he drifted away to sleep.

mirrorIt took a few days to get around to writing that letter. As Li’l D dictated it to me, I was touched by its sweetness and glad to have these thoughts recorded so he can someday see how his understanding has grown.

It probably seems to some like I share everything here. To others, I know it seems I don’t share enough. There’s so much of what’s good about my son, after all. Where’s all the bad stuff?

I have seen the destructive impacts of tearing others down. Sometimes, even things that aren’t meant to tear someone else down are felt that way. More by the day, I find I want my words here to build up those I love, not by concealing things that are hard or sad about them but by emphasizing that I see their goodness, too. That that is what my soul, if you will, recognizes as the truth of their souls. The dark and hard things are for us to discuss personally, not for me to advertise here.

And my son? Well, I have a special obligation to him. He is an inquisitive, compassionate soul, but he’s a four-year-old, not an angel. I see the rougher edges, and we discuss both our rough edges candidly with each other. I choose not to share his here because they are things I want him to have the choice to share or not share with others as he someday feels is right.

(Beside that, where’s the fun in sharing embarrassing memories with his future significant others if they’ve already read ’em all online?!)

With no judgment whatsoever toward any of my lovely blogging friends who choose similarly or otherwise, making this decision only for myself and my son based on who we are and what I felt in my own childhood, that’s my choice: to limit to a small portion of building-up moments what I share of him here.

Hiding the text of his second note

Hiding the text of his second note

I debated whether to share his letter, a deeply personal thing. And I decided that, in this one instance, I would share his four-year-old self’s concerns, emphasizing that they are not the same concerns he might have in a month, a year, or a decade.

I would show what I know a four-year-old to be capable of understanding, which is a great deal more than I think they are sometimes given credit for.

I would show, in his own words, the soul of the little boy who has taught me that love truly is a force more powerful than death.

I don’t know who he’ll be or what he’ll believe when he’s four, or forty, but I know I’ll love him all the same, and I hope he’ll feel that love powerfully no matter where I am in body or soul.

Dear God,

Don’t make us die.
No, God, don’t take my stuff.
I don’t want you to take
us and take our souls away.
I want to keep my soul
forever.

Thank you,
[Li’l D]

p.s. I want to keep my buddy Sai forever.
I love my buddy Sai.

Sidebar sadface

Sidebar sadface

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  1. January 26, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Such a wonderful post. I began sobbing when I read your sweet son’s letter to God. I have a 4 year old son as well and it sounds so much like what he might say. I have been and still am afraid of the day he brings up death or has questions about the brokenness of the world he lives in. I just so desperately want him to live in a safe and beautiful bubble. Argh. This whole post and the way you handled his questions touched me somewhere deep and profound. It gives me clarity on how I hope to respond to him when the questions do come. I feel more ready and less scared. Thank you.

    • January 26, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      I so hear you about that bubble. I wish I could protect him from all that saddens me about this world. I hopehopehope that by answering these questions for him as I am, I am helping him expand into the sense of feeling a different kind of protective bubble–of knowing there are sad and hard things in this world, but that he faces none of them alone. I know that I felt that with my mom, but I know also we can all feel things differently. Still, I think from our follow up conversations it is having the desired impact. He can go from playing Legos to asking a question about death to playing spaceship. The introduction is hard, but . . . it seems to get a little easier afterward. I think it’s the same for us as parents, too. It’s hard at the beginning, but once we’ve gone there, there’s a sigh of relief in knowing we did what we could. And that we’ll never have to have the first conversation again! However you do answer, it will reflect what you know about your son, and will be just a small part of all he remembers and knows about the world. Which is my way of saying, I believe you will tell him all in such a way that your love is an enduring part of what he understands about hardship, death and the world. (Written on my phone, and hope I expressed myself OK nevertheless!)

  2. Tet
    January 26, 2014 at 7:18 pm

    Just heartwrenching.

    • January 26, 2014 at 8:25 pm

      The good news is that after the heavy conversation, he woke up his boisterous, sweet self. I wasn’t sure it woukd work out like that, so it was a huge sigh of relief.

  3. Koa
    January 26, 2014 at 7:21 pm

    This is so sweet. Jed and I talk about death a lot. He tells me “when you’re dead mom I’ll have your car. But you will come back later and it’ll be too bad. It’ll be my car then.” Ah lovely kids.

    • January 26, 2014 at 8:31 pm

      This made me LOL! D’s sweet asides make me glad we are talking about this now, even if it aches. I hope he remembers things like telling me we needed to hold our breath long and hard so God can’t reach into us.

      Anthony was feeling a little sad (on account of these conversations) as we drove home tonight. D reached over from his car seat, grabbed his hand and and said, “I will protect you while I read this.”

  4. January 26, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    I dread this conversation. I hope to handle it as gracefully as you. Thx for sharing such a personal post. Beautiful.

    • January 26, 2014 at 8:35 pm

      Thank you. I was worried about posting this, but I feel like this is such a good thing to be open about so maybe people will feel more comfortable about seeing . . . I don’t know exactly how to say it, but maybe that the rightness of response is not in finding the (impossible) perfect answer but in the love behind the heart to heart.

  5. January 26, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    Oh, my dear. I was just fine with all of this until I read Li’l D’s ps. That blew some dust or something into my eyes.

    I smiled reading this, for a number of reasons.

    I, too, believe there is some binding force in the universe. I don’t know what or who it is, but I know it has a sense of humour, often-bad timing (which may just point back to the sense of humour), great strength and vast resources, and an amazing capacity for love — to give us love, to point us in the direction of love, to teach us about love.

    I have never kept death a secret from BoyGenius, but have let him experience his feelings to and at whatever level(s) he has been comfortable with. When our friend Gord died in September, a lot of other school parents didn’t want to tell their kids on the weekend seeking to shield them from pain during “days off”; I told BG as soon as I heard because I knew he would need and could use the time before school started again to work through his feelings. When a classmate’s grandfather died in October after a fall and a stroke, my boy asked “Why does that keep happening?” and proceeded to rhyme off a number of falls, causing injury and/or death, of friends and family (mostly elderly) that had occurred in the last 5 years! He then turned his concern to my mother: “How old is Oma?” and when I answered 86, and assured him she was healthy, he came back with, “Well, and she lives on an apple farm, so she eats right.” We can’t dictate where their minds wander, or what connections they make. Nor should we try. You know your son, and you know the right way to teach him. You do. Don’t shake your head, don’t doubt it, don’t argue with me. You do.

    Keep listening, he’ll always give you direction. ♥

    • January 31, 2014 at 5:53 am

      I think back to how open my mom was talking about hard things and I feel like her honesty was a huge asset to me and my siblings. I feel like it gave us the strength to see what was, without taking away hope at the possibility of what could be. Apart from that, it also made my mom’s presence a part of facing future hardships; I could feel her wisdom and love in them. I hope Li’l D has a feeling like that someday.

      Also, I love this: Keep listening, he’ll always give you direction. ♥

      Whenever I planned before, it was with an abstract child. Here, in this world, with this particular child, it is much easier to work with what is. And when I get it wrong? Well, I’ve learned something for next time! ♥

    • February 12, 2014 at 7:29 am

      I recently saw an episode of “Doctor Who” that expressed perfectly the reason I don’t believe in holding back bad news to let kids enjoy a specific time: The fact that you already know and are sad and upset will come through, and it may even be expressed as resentment of or anger at the kids. In “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” a mother has received a telegram informing her that her husband was killed in war, but she plans to wait until after Christmas to tell the kids. I could see her desire for them to enjoy Christmas slowly turning into frustration that SHE wasn’t enjoying Christmas and they were oblivious to her sacrifice for them, and when she eventually snapped at them I could totally relate! Bad decision. Furthermore, I remember a few times when I was young getting bad news just after I had been enjoying something and feeling terribly guilty for having had a good time while that badness was in the world, hanging there in parallel.

      Great post, Deborah! Here’s how I explained death to my child when he was 3. My religious beliefs are more structured than yours, but on the question of what exactly happens after we die, I feel it’s presumptuous to think we can know much about it until we experience it!

  6. January 27, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    Your son is such a deep thinker!

    I don’t think I remember when I ever had the thought of my parents dying. I know it came to me, especially as they’ve aged, but when? I couldn’t tell you but I’m sure I wasn’t until I was much older! I’m fortunate, my parents are in their 80s and doing great. I haven’t had to deal with the loss you have. And for your son to be so keyed into your thoughts and emotions and to ask these questions — wow! Good for you and him for your honesty and bravery in the face of such challenging questions and concepts!!!

    • February 8, 2014 at 4:52 pm

      It’s so funny to me how he’ll be laughing and playing superheroes one moment, and then set down his toys and ask almost philosophical questions. Although it surprises me sometimes (even after witnessing it many times!), I’m grateful for it. I love kids’ flexibility.

      I think about the kinds of discussions my mom had with me on death and am even more glad for these questions D asks. Someday he’ll remember these conversations, in content if not verbatim, and the feeling of our togetherness as we addressed even those tough topics will be part of how he carries me with him after I’m gone . . . hopefully many, many years from now!

  7. January 27, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Got a hanky? this was beautiful Deb.

    • February 8, 2014 at 4:53 pm

      Thank you, Elyse! I wrote this at a coffee shop. There were kids underfoot, and their moms were concerned I was bugged by them. Continuously dabbing at my eyes as I typed, I urged them not to worry. It’s a beautiful thing, all of this. Even the sadness.

  8. January 28, 2014 at 8:00 am

    So thoughtful and heartfelt. I, too, wonder about what I share online about my peanut. My blog started as a way to stay connected with friends, family and loved ones. As my daughter grows, though, I doubt whether I should be writing so much about her. I found, though, that the blog is as much about me and how I get through the good parts — and the extremely challenging parts — of motherhood. I’m sure I’ll have to continue to navigate the transparency of writing online as Edie grows.

    • February 25, 2014 at 11:42 am

      I really did start with the intention of showing no clear images, then progressed quickly to posting full videos. A few discussions with friends led me to strike a different balance, but I think there are many ways to do it right, all based on one’s individual preferences and thoughts. If only they weren’t so fluid . . . !

  9. January 28, 2014 at 8:26 am

    You are one of my blessings, thank you.

  10. January 30, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    You’ve given your son such a wonderful gift by being honest and sincere, even when it was difficult. Li’l D is a lucky boy to have such a loving mom.

    • February 25, 2014 at 11:45 am

      I really do feel my mom in these conversations. They were how she used to have them with me, and because of that, I feel her presence in difficult times, as in my post “This sorta fairytale.” When I fretted about not being with my mom when she died, I remembered how she told me–years before she died–exactly how she envisioned her last days. She called it. Her openness about what she envisioned made my siblings and a part of it, and then her a part of our memories and strength when she was no longer around to make new memories with us. What I didn’t appreciate at the time was how hard it was for . . . so I’m slow to understand, but glad to be doing so, eventually.

  11. February 3, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Your little angel has brought me to tears, Deborah.
    Remind me to never read your stuff at work again.

  1. February 25, 2014 at 2:20 pm
  2. March 11, 2014 at 7:01 am
  3. March 27, 2014 at 11:42 am
  4. May 27, 2014 at 12:58 pm
  5. September 27, 2014 at 7:14 pm
  6. October 1, 2014 at 8:40 pm
  7. October 15, 2014 at 1:57 am
  8. March 12, 2015 at 1:57 pm
  9. April 7, 2015 at 4:52 am
  10. May 8, 2015 at 7:49 pm
  11. May 25, 2015 at 5:02 pm
  12. February 3, 2016 at 4:13 am
  13. February 25, 2016 at 6:35 pm
  14. September 18, 2016 at 10:12 am

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