From How to Raise Good Catholic Children by Mary Reed Newland

Teach your child that death is the gateway to eternal life

Death is not the happiest subject there is. But it ought to be. If it isn’t, it’s because we’re still too much attached to the world, and not attached enough to God.

Joan Windham (who writes very fine saint stories for children) describes St. William (the French St. William) and his attitude toward death in a way that makes death sound as delightful as it ought to sound, and it’s quite the cheeriest kind of introduction to death for a child.

It goes something like this: After living a very busy, holy, apostolic life, St. William decided he wanted to go off to the missions. So he packed his bags, settled his affairs, and went to bed one night with plans to leave in the morning.

In the middle of the night, his angel awakened him and said, “Get up, William. We’re going someplace.”

“But I can’t,” said St. William. “I’m off to the missions in the morning.”

“Oh, we’re going someplace better than the missions,” said his angel. “We’re going to do something you want to do more than anything else in the world.”

“You mean going to see God?” cried St. William. “Oh, fine! Of course I’d rather do that than anything else, even going to the missions. What you mean is it’s my time to die. Well, that’s great!”

And off they went to see God.

It’s almost impossible for most adults to feel that way about death. The world doesn’t think death is the best thing of all — even death and going to see God. The idea has been universally accepted that death is a calamity to be staved off at all costs and that none but the mentally deranged look forward to it.

Children, however, don’t view things the way adults do; if they’ve been told that Heaven is the most wonderful place of all, that God is there, and life is but a kind of test with Heaven the reward, then they’re quite excited about going there and death holds no terrors for them.

In fact, they’re so fascinated by the idea sometimes that, like a small four-year-old who invented a song about it, they’re even shockingly cheerful.

Grown-ups think of death first of all as synonymous with one or all of these: pain, suffering, cold, stiff, coffin, grave, corruption, and, nowadays, the mystery story. In fact, the rage for murder mysteries probably has its roots in the fact that death has a morbid fascination for most people, as long as it’s someone else who is dead.

To think of themselves as one day dead is just morbid, without any fascination. Until impressed with their elders’ creepy notions, children think of death as synonymous with a place where you have fun all the time, never have to go to bed, can have anything you want, and are with Jesus and Mary and the angels and the saints.

But because death is a combination of both sets of ideas (barring the mystery-story trimmings except in a few rare cases), a little theological know-how does not come amiss. It’s good to brush up a bit before the small fries start asking their questions. “Can you have bicycles in Heaven?”

In Heaven the soul’s desires are wholly satisfied. One wants nothing because one has everything — in God. This is all that the soul desires, yet at the same time, it possesses Him to the very brim of its capacity, so that its desire is immediately fulfilled.

Now, this is all very confusing for a child. It’s possible, however, to arrange an answer that will be theologically correct, and at the same time satisfy his momentary conviction that Heaven must include bicycles or else it will not be heavenly. It’s quite truthful to answer, “In Heaven, dear, you may have anything you want.”

“Birthday cake and ice cream, too?”

“If you wanted birthday cake and ice cream in Heaven, then ice cream and cake you could have.”

Isn’t it so? If you want . . . You see, he will not want ice cream and cake. He will want only God, and since he will possess God fully, he will want nothing. It’s a slightly foxy answer, but it’s the truth.

Heaven, for a child, must be seen as the essence of all that’s good and desirable. As he puts the years behind him, it will be many things in turn, from a place where one has ice cream and cake all the time, and bicycles and tents and sailboats and an infinite number of party dresses and slippers, to (gradually) a place not necessarily so heavenly because of its furniture but because it’s where one is eternally loved and admired and satisfied.

It’s all quite normal, and pleasing to God, who understands best of all how a small child’s mind works. It’s certainly a wholesome attitude.

To translate Heaven into an unending choir session with nothing but “Holy, holy, holy” all the time is to make it sound hopelessly dull and to turn their hearts from desiring Heaven to desiring wherever it is one can have an infinitude of bicycles, tents, and party dresses.

The world promises these things if they will set their sights right, but the price is pretty high, and they don’t satisfy for very long.

This describing Heaven accurately may seem one of the accessories to the spiritual training of a child, yet it’s one of the most important points of all. We’re basing the whole undertaking on the assumption that they will want to go to Heaven. We had better be careful to make it sound like a good place to go.

“Mother, don’t you wish we’d all die soon?”

Calm your child’s fears about death

It’s discovering that we can’t shove off on the next bus, even though Heaven is such a great place to be, that introduces complications. Why can’t we all die the same day and go up to be with God? When will we die? Will it hurt? How will it happen? And the door is wide open for all the grisly answers to rush in and destroy the child’s ease with death as a nice idea, a happy eventuality.

“I don’t want you to die and go off without me.”

“Who will drive the car if Daddy dies?”

“I don’t want dirt in my mouth.”

“It will be dark in the ground. I don’t want to go in the ground.”

We won’t all die together unless God wants or permits it to be that way, because we’re not here on earth just to please ourselves and do as we wish. We’re here to do special work God has planned for us, and it’s reasonable to think that Mother’s work will be done before Monica’s, and Daddy’s before Jamie’s.

When the work is done, God calls us to eternity; even if the time has been wasted and the work left undone, we’re called to eternity all the same. That makes for sober thinking.

As for who will drive the car, “take care of me,” or whatever insecurity is suggested by a possible death, God will take care of all these things, just as Jesus promised so many times in the Gospel that He would.

About “dirt in my mouth,” which occurred to Peter after watching a baby goat’s burial one day, and how it is “dark in the ground” — well, we aren’t going to be here to worry about those things.

“The you part, the part that’s sitting here now and thinking, putting the thoughts into words, that part isn’t even there anymore when your body is put into the ground. The you part will be off somewhere else, quite busy, and if you give any thought at all to your body, it will be just to look down momentarily and say, ‘Oh, so that’s where they put my body. Well, well.’ ”

“But what does happen to your body?”

Well, barring the kind of coffins that guarantee preservation until the Second Coming, one will probably end up a sifted pile of dust and maybe a few bones (maybe in spite of the guaranteed coffins; I have often wondered how they can be so sure). That’s what God said we were when He sent Adam and Eve out of Paradise; it’s right there in the Old Testament.

Nice to know it happens to everybody. Country children will explain earnestly, “You turn into a kind of fertilizer.”

Well, don’t you? It’s silly to pretend you don’t when you do. They mean no disrespect. They observe that the birds and small animals whose funerals they have conducted will disintegrate in time, and they will happen on the old bones of a cow now and then (last year the skull of a cow in our woods, with moss and ground pine growing out of it — all quite beautiful), and it seems good and right and as it should be.

The great excitement is discovering that God will put it all back together one day and that it will be whole and sound and full of beauty. That, for instance, removes the shock of realizing how many members of our society today are amputees. The mental picture of a lovely new leg winging its way back to join its body on the Last Day leaves everyone quite content.

There will be some things, of course, that very soon they will not want to do for her..dull, dreary things, fetching, cleaning, carrying. But these also they must be trained to do. The mother will often want to save time and trouble by doing them for herself, but if she does she will hurt her children’s character. She must train them young to work for others, to be unselfish, to give. -Dominican Nun, Australia, 1950’s

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