How Not to Explain Heaven to Your Five Year Old

Viola is death obsessed. Has been for a long time. I could blame this on my dad’s death and funeral being one of her earliest memories. One could wonder whether all the walks through Oakland’s famed Mountain View Cemetery have finally come home to roost. It could be concluded that some people are just born thinking about dying. I know I was.

Either way.

She talks about death all the time.

When will I die, Mom?

Does it hurt to die?

What is Heaven like?

Who will be there when I am there? Will there be anyone to take care of me?

Do dead people forget?

How will I find you when I die? What if you haven’t died first?

What if heaven isn’t there but we don’t know it because dead people can’t tell us?

All of this piped from the backseat of our car, between chicken nugget stops and Beauty and the Beast sing-a-longs.

It’s hard, mostly because all of her voiced fears are my constant quiet anxieties. But I play it cool. Reassure her. I don’t promise her perfect outcomes, I do promise her peace. Mostly, it works and we move on to other subjects.

Today, she came home with a letter from her principal about a girl one classroom over that died of cancer over the weekend. Viola knew all about it and, even though she had only played with the girl once, was understandably devastated.

“Mom, can you tell me I’ll never get cancer?”

“I cannot. I can tell you that you don’t have it right now and that being alive is always about rightnow.”

“So I am going to die just like this girl died but maybe not till I’m older?”

“Pretty much. Yes. We all die. And that's okay. We go to heaven and then we'll never die again.”

“What is heaven like? Is she okay? Is she scared there? Why can’t we know what is there?”

And here’s where I really thought I was brilliant.

“Okay, Viola! You know how at Disneyland, you have to wait in really cool lines to get on a ride? And the line is so, so fun you don’t even think about the ride that much? Even though you got in line to get on the ride???

I mean, think about the Star Tours line! We LOVE that line and all it’s space stuff and funny robots! And when we first got in that line we didn’t know what the ride was like, right? But we knew it was there, even though we couldn’t see it and even though it seemed far away? And then after the line was over and we got on the ride we thought, “WOAH! That ride was amazing!” even though we were nervous to get on it? And it’s almost great you couldn’t see it because, well it was a great surprise and also because the line was so fun and you wouldn’t want to miss out on those funny robots?

Well, heaven is like that ride. Life is the line. Focus on the line, check out the goofy cool stuff, hang out with family, play games and have a blast!  And then, heaven, even though we can’t see it from life line, even though we are a little worried about what will happen once we get on the heaven ride, all that worry will go away once you get there. Because you’ll be able to see what you’ve been in line for and you’ll realize it’s so fun and so amazing and you’ll be so glad you get to be there.”

I thought I nailed it. Maybe not theologically, but at least five year old logically. However. At this point, Viola was gently weeping.

“Ummm. Vi-pie. What’s wrong?”

“Moooommmmmm. I went on Star Tours AND IT WAS TERRIFYING!!! IS HEAVEN TERRIFYING?”

Eventually, after much backtracking, I made things right.

She’d just stopped hiccup crying when her little voice piped up from the backseat one more time.

“Okay, mom. Well. If I have to die, I hope it’s like Yoda. He was a thousand years old and just got to get tired and go to sleep and then DEAD! And then he was a spirit so fast anyways. I could die like that.”

Me too, baby. Me too.