By Claire Ferry
I am reading to my three-year-old, Finn, when he turns to me and asks, “Mom, what happens after someone dies?” I think for a second and decide to keep things simple. “When people die,” I explain, “they go to heaven where they can watch over us.” Finn looks at me, confused. “Like in a moving truck?” he asks. Now I am confused. Until it occurs to me that Finn is mistaking “heaven” for “Kevin,” as in my Uncle Kevin, who had stopped by in a moving truck earlier that day to drop off some furniture. In the seconds it took me to deliver my “simple” explanation, the poor little guy had whipped up a vision of a world where a moving truck whisks away the deceased to spend eternity with my Uncle Kevin. Explaining death and dying to a preschooler is tough business. Tough, but necessary if I want my kids to have a connection to one of the most important people in my life: my little sister, Ali.
Ali was 17 when she died from a brain tumor. I was 20 years old then and one of the most painful things about losing her was that someday I would have children of my own; and she would never get to know them. And, more painful still, they would never get to know her. It has been difficult for me to feel a connection to Ali since she died. To remember the little details that made her who she was. Recently, my husband asked me what Ali’s favorite television show was. I dissolved into tears when I realized I couldn’t remember.
I have never been terribly religious and still entertain some rather childlike musings about death and the afterlife (I wonder if heaven is actually in the sky…). I often worry that because of this, my kids won’t have the foundation they need to understand and accept death as a part of life. It has taken me all of my 33 years to come to the belief that death is not akin to disappearance, that we are all part of a bigger picture. It has been a struggle for me to overcome my inner skeptic and feel the presence of someone I knew and loved and lost. If I have had such a hard time forming that connection with Ali, how can I expect my young boys to feel the presence of a person they never even got to meet?
The answer comes to me one day as I wander the beach near our home. A smooth stone washes up into my hand and I stop right in my tracks. What if this stone is a treasure for Finn left by Ali? At bedtime, I press the stone into Finn’s hand, telling him that I think Ali can do special things now that she’s in heaven, like move the waves and sand a certain way to make a stone as smooth and special as this one. I tell him that she left it on the beach just for him. This sparks some more interesting questions, like “So even though Ali is in heaven, she still has hands that she can use to move the sand and waves?” But, he is mesmerized by the idea that Ali left this treasure just for him. He takes the stone to school the next day, placing it carefully in the small zipper pouch of his backpack. I tell him that he can get it out if he is feeling sad or lonely at school. This prompts the first tear-free preschool drop off of the year.
I wonder if somehow I am being dishonest, that Ali didn’t really leave that stone on the beach for Finn. But seeing that mysterious smile on his face when he finds his own “Aunt Ali Treasure” for the first time is more than enough to convince me otherwise. The idea even catches on with Finn’s two-year-old brother, Mitch. He’s just starting to talk, but when he finds a bit of ribbon or sees a receipt blowing across the parking lot, he looks at me with these excited little eyes and asks, “Aunt Ali Treasure?” Without any doubt, I answer yes every time.
These treasures are a regular part of our household now. The zipper pouch of Finn’s backpack is bursting with little tokens, with meanings only he and Ali could understand. Here’s what I find inside: a bent piece of a chain link fence, a shredded piece of fabric, a plastic spinning top he found on the floor at the store. These tangible reminders of Ali have helped the boys identify with abstract ideas like death and heaven more than any of my convoluted explanations ever could. I am proud of them for being able to find the beauty in the mundane and for being able to connect it with someone they never even knew. Above all, these treasures have shown me that feeling Ali’s presence and bringing her memory to life doesn’t have to be so complicated. If the boys can do it simply by finding a scrap of paper or a button on the ground, surely I can find a way too.
Claire Heffron is a mother of two boys (ages 2 and 4), a freelance writer, and a pediatric occupational therapist. Interactions with kids at work and at home provide plenty of inspiration for writing about healthy childhood development, the inner workings of the toddler mind, and the frustrating/ridiculous/hilarious challenges of parenting.