Family / Kids / Parenting

The cemetery talk


My older daughter was four when I first tried to explain the concept of death to her. I wasn’t planning on having that talk, and I didn’t have much of a strategy ready, but it was kind of bound to happen. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of death in my life.

I had just returned home from a drive and she wanted to know where I’d been. I like to tell her the truth, where possible. I’d been at the cemetery, where I go every year around the high holidays to visit the graves of my brother and mother, who died 12 years ago and nine years ago, respectively. This annual trip is a family tradition, steeped in superstition, based on the notion that, as God is judging you and deciding your fate, you should visit the dead and ask them to put in a good word for you. I don’t go for that reason. I figure if my mom has the ear of the Good Lord, and if, indeed, He is considering smiting me, she probably doesn’t need a reminder to mention my good points.

Nor do I go because I feel some yearning to be there. Frankly, the cemetery is the place I feel the least connected to my loved ones, with whom I spent zero quality time there. But still I go, every year, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, mostly for my father, who does believe in this ritual and who would be pained if I skipped it. So basically, I go out of guilt.

In any event, when my older daughter was four and I had just returned from my annual pilgrimage to Brick Church Cemetery, she asked me where I was and I told her.

“What’s the cemetery?” she asked.

“It’s where Grandma and Uncle Jay … are now,” I said. Oops. First misstep.

“They live there? Can I go with you to see them?” she asked, excitedly.

“Well, no, not exactly. It’s kind of … well, it’s complicated, sweetie. After people die, we bury them.”

“What’s bury?”

“We put their bodies in the ground,” I said, wishing so badly I had said I was at Shop Rite.

“You put Grandma in the ground?” she said, looking suitably horrified.

“Well, her body, yes, but … when people die, only their bodies are left, not their … souls.” Fabulous. Now let’s talk about souls.

“What’s a soul?” she asked.

“That’s what makes you who you are, your personality, who you are inside.” What the hell does that mean? I heard my own internal four-year-old voice asking.

My real-life four-year-old just squinted at me. I squinted back.

“Grandma’s not in the ground, only her body is,” I repeated, as though this made perfect sense.

“So where are Grandma and Uncle Jay now?”

Oh crap.

“They’re …” I trailed off, staring at her in a way I hoped looked thoughtful and caretaking, but which was probably the way little Anthony’s parents looked at him in that episode of The Twilight Zone where the creepy kid could read all the grownups’ minds. “They’re in heaven,” I said, nodding with some finality, like that was the answer that cleared everything up, and we could get back to fixing snacks.

“Where’s heaven?”

“Heaven is …” I looked up toward the kitchen ceiling. “… up there.”

“In the attic?”

“No, in … the sky.” Oy.  I watched her digesting this latest bit of inanity, perhaps picturing my mother and brother gliding peacefully like blimps among the clouds.

“Can we take a plane to see them?”

“No, we can’t, sweetie. When people die, we can’t see them anymore.”

“So how do you know they’re up there?” How, indeed.

“Well, I don’t exactly. But I believe they are somewhere peaceful and happy.”

“Is heaven happy?”

“That’s what I’ve heard.”

“Do you miss Grandma and Uncle Jay?”

“Very, very much.”

“Do you wish you could go to heaven, too? To see them?”

“No, I hope I don’t go there for a very, very long time because I want to be with you and your sister and with Mommy every day.”

“I don’t want you to go where I can’t see you.”

“Of course not. Me neither.” I realized at that moment, with no small amount of pain, that I could not promise her I wouldn’t, any more than my mother could have promised me. I was three when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer; she lived another 30 years through various remissions and recurrences. In the end, I was no less shocked, devastated, decimated when she was gone. Now, I could see it on my daughter’s face, her psyche’s first brush with the finality of loss. I wanted to tuck her back inside my womb. Instead, I suggested we have cookies.

Now she is seven. We’ve had many follow-up conversations, none of them quite satisfying her need to understand what happens to people when they die. I can’t say I blame her. I haven’t found a satisfying answer either.

When I returned from the cemetery last week, she just wrapped her arms around my neck and squeezed.

“Are you sad?” she whispered in my ear.

“A little. But this hug is helping.”

“I’m sorry you can’t see Grandma and Uncle Jay.”

“Thanks, sweetie. Me too. Really glad I can see you, though.”

“Me too.”


Tags: , , ,


  1. Thank you for that touching (and complicated) post. I’m getting to the point with my three-yr.-old where she has begun to wonder about her missing grandmother and I don’t know if I have the skill yet to follow through as you did. I appreciate the example – and knowing we’re not alone with our inquisitive, sweet, sensitive kid. Also, cookies are a winning solution.

  2. Let me join my thanks to Meridith’s. I laughed out loud several times as I read this (“Where’s heaven?” “Heaven is …” I looked up toward the kitchen ceiling. “… up there.” “In the attic?”).

    Several family members are very present in our kids’ lives via their absence, and my father is in the long but very evident process of going gentle into that good night now. So we come up to these sorts of talks on a regular basis. I felt so unprepared (at least by anyone or anything around me) for my mom’s death (I was the same age as you, C.J., when my own mom died) that I feel it’s one of the biggest gifts I can give my children: some kind of familiarity (to the degree possible) with loss and transition on this scale. Or some language with which to begin to get some hand-holds on it. Or some visual images.

    But it’s a dynamic, necessarily speculative realm for us all. I love when you say:

    “We’ve had many follow-up conversations, none of them quite satisfying her need to understand what happens to people when they die. I can’t say I blame her. I haven’t found a satisfying answer either.”

  3. Meredith, I appreciate your generosity in calling my flailing approach “skilled.” 🙂 It’s a really tough subject and you will probably know when the right time is (very likely at the moment when your three-year-old asks, “Where is Grandma?”). Polly, I agree completely that the best we can do as parents is try to give them some familiarity with loss and transition so that they have some frame of reference. Of course other times, I want to insulate them for as long as I possibly can, figuring that no amount of preparation will gird them and at least they can have some nice time in a bubble. But then I realize that, in fact, there are important people missing and even if I don’t express my grief outwardly, they’ll sense it. Better to get it out on the table?

    • Ah, C.J.! And you’re back to that central conundrum you named so eloquently in your post about Pride, and why we celebrate it. I think those of us whose kids are pre-tween are probably the most wracked about it, because there’s a chance that neither bigotry nor death will be so brashly up in their faces that they need our explanation of it. So we get carried along by each day, and try to weave gentle little strands of these imponderables in, when the opportunity avails itself.

      That said, the first time our daughter experienced straight-on anti-gay bigotry in a class, from a classmate, she was utterly stymied, and didn’t tell us for a week, and then only b/c I wheedled it out of her. When my dad goes, we’ll see whether there’s been any help to our gentle talks about the here and now vs. the sweet hereafter. Sigh.

  4. Our older son could not sleep for weeks when he realized that death was the end. Even if there is a heaven, and I didn’t say that there was, he understood that it would be the end of our lives together. He didn’t even want to celebrate his birthday because that meant he’d be one year older and closer to the end. It was impossible to provide an answer to his question, a question that plagues us all, “What’s the point?” I had no answer, no answer that could satisfy anyway.

    It was then that he decided that he would be an inventor when he grew up so that he could invent something that prevents people from dying. That’s where we left it, and it seems to provide some comfort for now.

    I’d love to hear what other parents say. It was definitely the most difficult and upsetting conversation we’ve had to date.

  5. Oh, Deborah. Number one, I am so sorry for the heaviness in his sweet young heart (such feeling!), and number two, that boy is going to have to become either a rabbi or a medical engineer or a goatee’ed soulful singer-songwriter or perhaps all three.

    Brace your urban East Coast self for some NorCal woo-woo, and a perhaps not-too-shocking revelation from me, but: I totally believe we’ve all known each other before, and will know each other again. Not in a way we could put a finger on in this go ’round, per se, but we are familiar(s) to one another. Not so much woo-woo, I suppose (though it’s pretty atypical, in a Judeo-Christian context), but instead just the Tibetan Buddhist take on our comings and goings.

    So I tell this to our kids – that I believe this; that we come and go and come and go, each time in different forms, but usually with lessons to learn and work to do, very often with people (or … souls) that we’ve known before – and that other people believe other things, and they should ultimately form their own opinion, since this particular matter is pretty hard to get first-hand testimony on.

    I got The Mountains of Tibet as a guide, first for my nephews, should my sister be open to it (a pressing matter: the older brother, nine, was dying of cancer, and there is precious little literature about the topic directed toward children, and this book stood out). Later, I have read it to my own kids, as one way to understand death. I just now looked at the Amazon reviews of it, and I’m kind of amazed at the raves. One qualified the rave with the practical caveat: “Those who believe in ‘Go directly to Heaven, do not do a do-over’ need not apply.”

    But that comment points, I think, to the unavoidable truth under parenting: our own beliefs are daily put to the test, and succeed or fail often based on, finally, the workmanlike practicality that they help to make sense of the world to our children. My two kids, now 6 & 8, have been most exposed to what my partner and I believe: that there is no ending to life or the soul, so much as a really (ok, REALLY) dramatic transition of life from one form into another unseen by us. It helps me that I have a handful of personal experiences to substantiate the presence of the “unseen by us” part.

    Practically speaking, the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of death as a door back to where we were earlier, and through which we may re-enter in another form, has been fun for our kids. They often make casual remarks about what they were before, and what kind of form they may take upon return (I don’t fine-tune with the rest of the belief system, that many believe there’s a hierarchy to the forms one may take, for one, and that whether or how we return is influenced by the hard work we do this time around, and that – kicker! – coming back is widely regarded as a pain in the arse and a “close but no cigar” option). But how deep this all goes, as comfort or guide, is again something I suppose I’ll only really know when the next test comes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.