The little girl curled up in her mother’s arms. Her mother lay weak and frail in a bed of rumpled sheets, blankets and pillows. Her breath was becoming strained and it was growing more and more difficult to speak. Sometimes her thinking betrayed her and her thoughts would drift to a half wake place where she had already gone to heaven. When she was there she saw her own mother and her father and her tired body wasn’t hurting anymore. It was a peaceful place. The idea of dying had become less frightening. The saddest part was leaving her family and especially her little girl. She prayed for the right words to begin the telling of her dying.
“Mama needs to tell you some happy stuff and some sad stuff,” she began. The girl’s eyes opened a little wider. “Do you remember how flowers look so beautiful and then they die? And leaves on trees are pretty and green and then they die too. If you look out the window right now you will see brown leaves on the ground all around that big oak tree in the backyard. Those leaves used to be bright green on the oak tree. The leaves and the flowers look so lovely when they are alive and after a time they begin to look different. Their color changes and they become dry and break. The leaves even fall off the trees and become part of the ground.”
“I love to play in the leaves.”
“The leaves on the tree are green when they are alive. When they are on the ground they are brown and dead. They die when they fall off of the tree. Their time to be alive is over. My body is broken and it is dying like the leaves that have fallen off of the tree. Many people have tried to help us keep my body alive but my body is too badly broken and they could not fix it, no matter how hard they tried. It is time for my body to die. Your body and your brother’s body and the body of your Daddy are very alive and very healthy. Look how strong you are and how much energy you have. It is not time for you or your brother or your Daddy to die. You will live a long time.”
The girl snuggled closer to her mother.
“There is a part of me that we call my soul. The soul is the very best part of me. That is the part that loves you and laughs and sings and smiles. My soul will not die when my body dies. It will keep loving you forever. You can’t see my soul. It is like the wind. We feel it but we can’t see it. Come a little closer and I’ll show you.” The mother tilted her head slightly so she could blow a little breath onto her girl’s forehead. “Feel that little bit of wind I made? My soul is like that wind. We know it is there but we can’t see it. My soul will go to heaven. Heaven is the happy part of what I am telling you. Heaven is a place that is good to be and it feels good and safe and peaceful and happy there. But the sad part is I cannot come back from heaven. When my body dies I will not be able to hug you or touch you anymore and I am very sad about that.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I don’t want to leave you but when my body breaks I cannot stay.” There was a pause and tears and the mother and daughter held each other tight. “You are going to be here doing many wonderful things. You are going to stay with your Daddy and your brother and play with your friends and live in this same house and go to your same school. Your Daddy will take care of you and wake you up and get you ready for school and help you get a bath and get your dinner and tuck you in at night. That part of your life will not change. You will have your next birthday and a big birthday cake and have another Christmas and give and get presents. You will grow to be a beautiful lady and maybe go to college and live in a lovely house. What do you think you will do when you grow up?”
“Maybe I’ll be an astronaut and live on the moon.”
“I think you will be able to do many things. So many wonderful and fun things we can’t even think of all of them now.”
“Where will you be? Where is heaven? Can you visit me?”
“I cannot visit you from heaven and we don’t know where it is. We know it is a place where no one hurts and only good things happen. We can use our imagination to think what it might be like. What do you think heaven might be like? What might people do there?”
“Maybe there are swimming pools there and it is summer all the time. Maybe there is every kind of ice cream you can think of.”
“Maybe people get to do the things they love to do the most. Maybe I’ll be reading every day all day in a big soft chair by a fireplace and sometimes I’ll take a break to roast marshmallows in the fire.”
“When are you going to die?”
“I don’t know exactly but my body is pretty weak so it might be soon. My body might get so weak I will not be able to talk. I might be in this bed laying here for a few days before my body finally dies. When that happens you can talk to me and I can hear you but I will be too weak to talk back. It is important that you know how much I love you and that I will be loving you when I am so tired I cannot talk back and that my soul will be loving you in heaven. And I am proud of you too. You are the best five year old girl in the world.”
“What do we do now?”
“We keep hugging right now. Maybe you can draw me some pictures and we can snuggle sometimes too. And I can tell you some stories about when you were a little baby. I can tell you about when you started crawling and you kept pulling all the pots and pans out of the kitchen cabinets. It was so much fun to watch you grow up. And we can keep telling each other we love each other.”
The Telling was written by Marty Hernandez in an effort to help families explain death to young children. It is a story that should be told with many, many assurances, hugs and much, much love.
Marty is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in grief and loss. She began as a hospice social worker traveling to patients in their homes. While volunteering one summer in a bereavement camp for children, she realized the value of her own childhood experiences when her father died. Today she uses her professional study of bereavement, her years of experience counseling children and families through loss and her personal experiences with grief to support young people of all ages when they have been impacted by the death of someone significant in their lives.