We don’t know how Freddie processes death. It feels important, necessary even, to acknowledge and thoroughly accept that before anything else. We don’t know what this loss feels like in his heart. But there are some things we do know.
He misses her. It’s clear in the quiet times, the flashes of silence that happen when I catch him staring at her photo by “his flowers” (Bethie’s flowers). He loves thinking of her as silly; he loves laughing about his Boo Bear. He knows she lives somewhere else now, and he believes that she has everything he does, just in heaven. A navy blue house, a cape and crown, shelves full of books, a green bath tub. He knows she is happy.
When we first arrived home after losing Bethie, we used words that the grief counselor and chaplain at the hospital had shared with us. We modified them to include heaven and God, but we used many of the words and ideas they suggested to explain what happened. We modify them a bit with time, but generally, we continue to use these words today:
Bethie’s heart and body were trying very hard to work, but they were made differently than ours. They weren’t as strong as ours; they couldn’t work as well as ours do. The doctors helped her heart and body work for a long time, but then her heart and body became very tired and they stopped working. When your body cannot work any longer, you go to a new home – heaven. Heaven is full of love, happiness, silliness, and fun. Heaven is where God and Jesus live, and they are there to be with Bethie. We will still talk about Bethie, and love her, and see her in our photos and videos, but we cannot see her body any more because she lives in heaven. Bethie loved being here with us, but she is SO HAPPY there. We know that. Our hearts and bodies are still working, but Bethie’s are not. We are sad because we miss having her here with us, but we love her and we know she loves being in heaven.
It is repetitive, but we need to know that Freddie hears this message. We need him to know that we believe in heaven and we know who is there. We need him to know that we are here with him and will continue being here with him. We need to help him create a vision of Bethie, happy and whole still, even though he cannot see her here with us.
We talk with Freddie a lot about what Bethie is doing in heaven. When we found out about her heart, the consolation was that he would be too little to remember losing her. Now the hope is that he loved her here long enough that he will always remember her. We are devoted to doing whatever we can to help him remember. Often we ask him what she’s eating for dinner in heaven while we’re eating dinner, what she’s playing in heaven while we’re playing, what she’s reading in heaven while we’re reading. The question is applied to any and all parts of life. His answer is always the same – she is doing exactly what we’re doing, just in heaven.
The first time he strayed from this was in the grocery store. On his own, without anyone asking, he declared, “Bethie’s at the grocery store too in heaven! And she has her own green cart!” I seized the opportunity he gave and asked him, “But who is pushing her in her cart in heaven?” He was thoughtful for a few seconds, and then he replied, “God!” He knew that I couldn’t be here and in heaven because she cannot be here and in heaven, and so he had to choose someone else to be with her. And he chose God. He chose God because we have spent time teaching him that Bethie is not alone in heaven; she will never be alone in heaven. She is with God and he loves her. And he remembered. It was a moment of true pride for me, and it also cushioned my sometimes-fearful heart. He is remembering her, and he believes. And when a child talks about God and heaven it is with pure conviction; it is true and real and untainted. It is how I wish we could all approach that being and that place.
Our children’s love for God is pure, and, as parents, our greatest task in life is to encourage this love. And perhaps learn from it too.