My youngest daughter turned five a few months ago. It’s been almost two and a half years since she lost her little brother Elliot, a brother she only saw as my pregnant belly and as a cold, still baby in a casket on the day of his funeral.
We’ve talked about heaven a lot since Elliot died. Really, having other children has increased the topic because kids have so many questions, and what good answer can we give them?
“Where is Elliot?”
“When will we see him again?”
“Why did God let Elliot die?”
Uhh…answer to be given in…
If the concept of heaven is abstract to the adult mind, how much more confusing it must be to children. Perhaps this explains the monumental fear that exploded from my Valerie a few months ago.
We were between houses and sleeping in one big room as a family in my parents’ basement. Both girls were tucked snugly in their beds reading books, and I thought all was well. Sylvia, my older daughter appeared and said, “Mom, Val is crying. I don’t know why.”
I went to Valerie’s bedside and saw her clutching her blanket and crying real tears (not the kind when she just doesn’t want to go to sleep and puts on an act for attention).
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” I asked.
Pause. Big explode: “I don’t want to go live in heaven!!! I want to stay on this earth! I know I won’t like it there!!!”
Talk about unexpected. We had not been discussing heaven anytime recently I could remember. But sweet Val has probably heard and participated in more discussion about it than most kids do their entire childhoods.
Valerie’s outburst is not so different from how the idea of heaven struck me throughout my life. It was comforting in the way singing “Someday” around the church camp bonfire as a teen made me glad there was something after death instead of nothing. But it was never comforting in the sense that I wanted to go there. I think that’s what Val was expressing. She has a brother who she was supposed to grow up with, and instead we grown-ups tell her she’ll only get to see him and know him in heaven. Oh, and that she WILL go there. She doesn’t have a choice. Life leads to death. Thinking about all that can be heavy and scary, so I don’t blame her for getting upset at the thought.
But something in me knows there is not such a sharp distinction between this and that reality, between life on earth and life in heaven, between now and then.
Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, it’s like I can see the truth: Christ in me has already placed me in heaven’s realms. I’m not imagining things when I feel overwhelmed with the presence of my babies, as if they are really here. Christ is with me and they are with Christ. We are not apart; we are not living in two distinct realities.
I can’t remember who first told me this interesting scientific fact, but it has been a confirmation for me of what I feel. Scientists have discovered in postmortem examinations of women that we mothers carry the DNA of our children in our brains for life. Male DNA has been found inside the brains of women who had a son. I remember also being fascinated that I found out Elliot’s gender when I was just 11 weeks pregnant because of a blood test. They could tell from MY blood that Elliot was a boy! The mingling of mother and child is not something I have cooked up for my own comfort. It is real.
But it has to be even more real, because not all women have babies and men can’t carry their children and yet all of us probably has that person, whether it’s a child or sibling or spouse or parent, who doesn’t really feel “gone” after their death. It is not my intention to be mystical or supernatural about this, but truthfully the existence of our souls after death is both of those things!
When I come to the Bible, the passages that speak to this reality are the ones that comfort me most.
“…and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” Eph. 2:6
“For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” 1 Cor 15:53
“While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” 2 Cor. 4:18
I have been fixated on a poem called “Nondum” by Gerard Manley Hopkins lately. I’ve known the poem for years, but in the past few months the words have resonated with me as if they were my own words. To me, Hopkins articulates with startling accuracy the heaviness of this present reality in contrast to the transcendent beauty it contains. How can we have the stars of the night sky and also war? How can we have the crash of ocean waves and also children starving? And where is God in the beautiful mess of it all?
I’m thankful I no longer worry that questions like these indicate I am losing my faith. Instead, I see that questions like these are the evidence of my faith. Hopkins’ own wrestling produces a solidarity in me toward the 19th century Jesuit priest. Good ol’ Gerard knows how I feel.
For some reason, in the 15 or so years I’ve loved this poem, I never thought to investigate what the title “Nondum” means. So the other day, I looked it up.
It means: “Not yet.”
It gave me chills to read that. If there’s any two simple words that describe the way I feel many days, that would be it. Living in the “not yet” of this present reality while at the same time touching the fringes of the reality to come—there is something very deep about this I almost don’t have words for.
“Not yet” is enjoying the breeze on my face while hearing something like a whisper from God.
“Not yet” is my heart delighting at the sound of my girls’ laughing at the same time my heart cracks because a little boy’s voice isn’t filling our house.
“Not yet” is my heart leaping when I anticipate adopting a child soon, while it also sinks to think of the millions of fatherless yet to be adopted.
“Not yet” is breathing in the beauty of the stars at night and breathing out a cry for justice and comfort to come to the billions suffering under those same stars.
“Not yet” is being surrounded by people I love and who love me and yet feeling like a stranger.
“Not yet” is knowing God and yet not having any clue about God.
“Not yet” is a desire to be wrapped up in the beautiful tangle of people we call the church, while feeling awkward and out of place in church life.
“Not yet” is the well-worn comfort of old friends and the sad longing for how friendships once were.
“Not yet” is resting completely in Christ’s love for me, and his love giving me the freedom to doubt, weep, laugh, and dance.
“Not yet” is a vibrant little girl crying that she doesn’t want to go to heaven.
Hopkins writes in “Nondum:”
We guess, we clothe Thee, Unseen King,
With attributes we deem are meet;
Each in his own imagining
Sets up a shadow in They seat;
Yet know not how our gifts to bring,
Where seek Thee with unsandalled feet.
So much guessing. So much not knowing. It’s not yet!
And still, there is present life to live. It’s not enough to daydream about the far off someday when in some literal or figurative fashion Jesus will “return” and set all things right. There are days when the not yet makes me want to just lay in bed and wait for Him so I can be with my little boy again. I wonder if “not yet” contributes to depression?
Paradoxically, “not yet” is what keeps the spark of hope glowing.
I just spent time in a conversation of the heart with a member of my extended family who has also lost a child. Her daughter Jennifer, my little cousin-once-removed, died 24 years ago at the age of seven. When I think about it, that’s the first death that ever grabbed my heart. I remember Jennifer was so beautiful, like a little porcelain doll. On our week-long visits to Iowa on summer break as a kid, I’d play with Jennifer and her siblings and catch fireflies in their yard. I remember a heavy sense of the wrongness of that little doll not being alive anymore, as much as I could understand and mourn her at the age of 14.
And now speaking with her mom, being a mom myself of a child who lives in heaven, the sharing of understanding felt so welcome. She understood my longings and the mix of sorrow and joy that presents at every moment. When we were finishing our conversation she said, “Aren’t we blessed to be their moms? Jennifer and Elliot’s moms?”
Wow. What a significant statement: we are the mothers to these children. Present-tense mothers who are not yet with them, and these children in heaven have received the reality we are not yet able to live in. We’re connected to heaven in a deep and abiding way.
Maybe the “not yet” of life is a blessing. It’s the one hope that keeps despair from winning. There are times we can all look at the world and be overwhelmed with the wrongness of it. But this is truth: it’s not yet done. It’s not yet over.
“Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. “ 1 John 3:2
Jennifer and Elliot, and Avery and Everett, and my aunts and uncles and grandparents and other friends and family who’ve gone before me: they see Him just as He is. And when He appears—oh! When He appears! I’ll see my Jesus, and I’ll see them too.
I guess that will help me keep going. What’s the good of giving up? It’s not easy, so along with Hopkins I ask my Jesus:
Oh! Till Thou givest that sense beyond,
To show Thee that thou art, and near,
Let patience with her chastening wand
Dispel the doubt and dry the tear;
And lead me child-like by the hand,
If still in darkness, not in fear.