She sat across from me, tears quietly streaming down her face. “I need to know,” she said, “is there really a Heaven? I used to believe in one," she continued, “but since my child died, I need to know for sure.” Quietly desperate she repeated, “I need to know for sure.” I hear this question frequently as a grief therapist; this heart-broken plea for reassurance. While it often comes from parents, it is a common question from anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one.
The guide for my work is Alan Wolfelt’s Companioning Theory. It is a model of care that advocates “being totally present to the mourner rather than assessing, analyzing, fixing, or resolving another’s grief.” It is a commonsense and loving approach to help people navigate the grief experience. As a therapist, it is not my responsibility to fix an individual’s pain but rather to sit with them in their pain. I understand, trust, and follow that concept. However, I must admit, when a devastated parent asks me to prove their child is in Heaven, I really wish I could do that; that is one “fix” I wish I could make.
Sometimes when a parent questions if there is a Heaven, they are looking for a deep discussion on the afterlife. Other times, the request to prove there is a Heaven is really two deeper questions. First, is my child safe? And second, will I ever see my child again? Most parents have an instinctive need to know, without doubt, that their children are safe. These questions remain even after children are grown and beyond our supervision. It is understandable then, that when children die and are now totally out of our sight and contact, parents are often tortured by where they are and whether they will ever see them again.
In the agony of grief, people will sometimes say, defiantly, “I don’t believe anymore. How could a god let this happen? There is no reason for my loved one’s death.” Other times, people will look down at their feet and say sheepishly, “I can’t believe what I always have. Things I have believed all my life hold no meaning for me now.” Grief often forces a re-examination of previously held beliefs and altering them to the newly lived experience.
Exploring religious beliefs is an important part of the grief journey. Many people find comfort in their long-held beliefs while others question those. It is important to provide a safe, non-judgmental place for people to discern how, if any, their belief structure has been changed by the death of their loved one. I could not be the person I am, nor do the work I love, if I did not have my own deeply held beliefs. Being secure in my own beliefs allows me to be totally present with my patients as we explore their belief system. For those who hold no beliefs regarding an afterlife, companioning them on their grief journey will follow a different but no less vital path.
This exploration of beliefs involves two components.The first is an attempt to make meaning of the death, even when initially there seems to be no such meaning possible. There is a difference between the reason for the death and making meaning of the death. The first answers the question how, such as disease, accident or overdose, while the latter answers the question why. Making meaning can be an exceptionally long process and not necessarily a logical one; but those who do come to find meaning for the death discovers it brings a sense of peace. It does not diminish the yearning but rather enables the mourner to live and love rather than just exist.
The second component involves the concept of continuing bonds; that we can continue to love and connect with our loved ones. Love is energy. Energy can be changed but not destroyed. It makes sense that the energy of human life transitions to another form when human life is over. That energy is what connects us to our loved ones. Knowing that we can still talk to our loved ones is very comforting. Believing that they are truly with us in some form gives us the hope to go on living. Believing, without a doubt, that there will come a day when you will be reunited can be an essential thread of hope on the grief journey.
Perhaps there is not a definitive way to prove the existence of a Heaven. But creating a space where the difficult questions can be asked without criticism or judgement can allow the process of healing to begin. Giving mourners permission to question, doubt, change, or possibly reject long held beliefs allows them to come to their own conclusions. Reassuring mourners that they can still maintain a bond with their loved ones and that the love they felt has changed but has not died can provide immeasurable comfort on the road to healing.
The following work by 19th century poet Emily Dickinson beautifully explains continuing bonds and reunion.
And if I go, while you’re still here
Know that I live on,
Vibrating to a different measure
Behind a thin veil you cannot
You will not see me,
So you must have faith.
I wait for the time when
We can soar together again,
Both aware of each other.
Until then, live your life to its fullest
And when you need me,
Just whisper my name in your heart,
I will be there.
~ Emily Dickinson
About the Author
Maureen is a grief therapist and educator who has a private practice called Grief Weavers located at Hope Floats Healing and Wellness Center in Kingston, MA.
Maureen is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and certified as a Fellow in Thanatology by the Association for Death, Dying and Counseling. (ADEC). Maureen works with individuals, children, and families who have suffered loss.
Maureen uses a pen name to honor her parents who were very special people.
New Resource for Children!
Tuck Meets a Dragonfly by Frances Charles (Maureen Walsh's pen name.)
This delightfully illustrated and heartwarming book tells the story of a young turtle named Tuck who is struggling after the death of his Mom. Tuck’s best friend, Padraic, embarks on a quest to find the answer to Tuck’s questions, “Is there a Turtle Heaven?” And “Is my Mom there?” Padraic seeks the help of Old Naughton, a turtle elder, who in turn asks the help of the dragonflies, Queen Emily and Katarina. Together the group brings the answers Tuck needs to begin his healing.
Written by a grief therapist and educator, this uplifting story highlights ways to help grieving children. Suggestions are offered on using the story to broach the topics of grief and loss, “what happens next,” and how love and friendship can heal the pain of grief.