As I sit down to write, I am reminded of a post I wrote many years ago entitled “Where Do Cat’s Go,” about my mother’s cat, Mimi, who passed away at the age of twenty-four. At that time, I was struggling with what death meant outside of an Evangelical Christian ideology. I had rejected the doctrine of heaven (and hell) itself; but doubt lingered. Fear still held sway over my emotions. I wanted to “believe in,” something else. Whether to regain control or simply for comfort, I hoped for new belief.
Carol Christ, who has touched so many of us, who was my teacher and whom I miss, replied to that post (paraphrasing here), “Why does [Mimi] have to go anywhere? Isn’t it enough that she is a loved and remembered part of life?”
At the time it was not enough. But recently, facing the reality that I do not have definitive or perhaps, static “answers” for my little one when she asks me about death, I find comfort in Carol’s words—in the idea that I don’t have to “answer” my daughter with one, forever “truth.” Because I have to ability to give her “enough,” at least for now.
As a feminist mom, I frequently think about what will give my daughter strength and a sense of her value outside of hetero-patriarchal standards. I am also an ex-vangelical agnostic married to an atheist. He and I want our daughter to have choice in her spirituality and freedom to explore her own directions. I think this is a good commitment, though it is frequently a little more difficult in practice. My partner wants to protect our daughter from all religion and Christianity in particular. I tend to take an educational approach, answering her questions about spiritual matters with, “well, people believe all sorts of things about that,” then listing several beliefs or mythologies that might give her some information on the matter.
Sometimes this works very well. She may ask me to weigh in on some question, which on my end often sounds like, “I’m not sure honey. I think x, y, z is important though,” as I try to convey values and openness to different spiritual possibilities. When I reciprocate and ask her what she thinks, she conveys a strong sense of her view, even as that view changes year to year. Sometime though, options and stories aren’t enough—and I return to the question Carol gave me, what is or will be enough?
Taking a walk after watching the movie Wish Dragon (2021) the other day, my daughter had several questions about a wish that you man Din makes to heal his friend’s father and save him from death.
“Mommy, why did he make that wish,” she asked. And then, “Mommy, if Daddy and I were both sick, who would you wish to live?”
I tried to avoid the direction I could sense she was headed: “I would wish for you both to be healed.”
“But Mommy, what if you could only wish for one?” [Gulp.]
“I would pick you. Daddy would be mad if I didn’t; and our job is to take care of you.”
This response led to big, anxious tears and many, many more questions. My heart felt so heavy for the big hard questions my daughter was holding onto and I did my best to answer.
“Mommy, will you show me a picture of you and Daddy, so I will know what you’ll look like if you come back as a baby?” (She has expressed a belief in reincarnation of a sort many times.)
She continued, “Why do things have to change?” Why can’t we just reach a place, and then, stay the same?”
Carol’s words came to my mind and lips, “Because my baby, “change is.” Change is necessary for life.”
“What does death feel like?” [Sheesh :( ] “What do you think happens really, Momma?”
“I don’t know sweetheart.”
“But please, what do you think happens?”
“I don’t know” wasn’t quite enough here when I could tell that she needed comfort. So, I chose my own uncertain truth, “there is so much beauty in life. I don’t think it just goes away. There must be beauty. There is so much love; and I don’t think love just disappears, do you? So, there must be love.”
I think it was enough for now: that she knows that she is loved, and that life holds this somehow. I hope it will leave her perhaps, with a sense of power and care too. I feel certain, though, that this is better than what I learned growing up: that if I really, really believed I’d be with Jesus. Paired with teachings about the Rapture, the “if” hanging over my head drove me to panic several times during my childhood. If I played for a long time and then couldn’t find anyone right away, if my parents didn’t return when they said they would, I’d be sure Jesus had taken them to heaven and left me, a bad girl who didn’t believe enough, alone and behind.
What’s enough? What’s good enough for a feminist mommy, a feminist parent? The answers to these questions change, I know. Accepting myself outside of hetero-patriarchal standards, though, is also teaching me how to be okay with doing the best I can. And I hope in this year, dealing with loss, pandemic, fire, and so, so much change, that I/we can see how and where it is enough that we are doing the best we can.
For my daughter.
For Carol, rest in peace.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.
8 thoughts on “Talking about Death with my Daughter & Remembering Carol Christ”
I love your reply to your daughter, that “there is so much beauty in life. I don’t think it just goes away. There must be beauty. There is so much love; and I don’t think love just disappears, do you? So, there must be love.”
And yes; all we can do is the best that we can. And learn and grow as we continue to live .
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It sounds as though your daughter is still quite young. For an older child or young adult – for that matter for an adult who likes fantasy – I would suggest a couple of books that have influenced my feelings about death.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the part where Lyra encounters the harpies and what happens after.
And the sixth volume of Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series, The Other Wind, which almost completely overturns her description in the third volume.
Carol will be greatly missed. The various posts about her show how much she is loved and honured, and that she was an inspiration to many. I am grateful for my connection with her, distant though it was.
Beautiful and moving post that is a real tribute to Carol and the way she always seemed to get to the heart of an issue.
I reiterate her words ““Why does [Mimi] have to go anywhere? Isn’t it enough that she is a loved and remembered part of life?”
Gosh, I know now that is enough. Look at Carol – we have lost her and yet she lives on as a part of each one of us and probably every living creature and tree that she loved. Everyone she touched… “She changed everyone she touched”…
How I wish I had been introduced to this idea of it being enough to have been given the gift of life as a child instead of fearing that existential dread of death – I remember periods when I was obsessed with death, and today at 76 still fear it, if I am honest. However, I take great comfort from knowing that I will be returning to the earth I love fiercely as ashes that will nurture new life…I think for me it how I die that is the real issue…
For your daughter your words are the words are the words of a wise -woman – She is going to be all right.
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“there is so much beauty in life. I don’t think it just goes away. There must be beauty. There is so much love; and I don’t think love just disappears, do you? So, there must be love.” Amama ua noa (so let it be without limit). What a beautiful explanation you found for your daughter!!!!! I find it amazing how our little ones bring out so much treasure from us and give us so much in return. She is lucky to have you as a mother.
Hi Sara, I was really moved, by how skillful you handled all your daughters questions. Indeed she is very lucky to have you as her mother. By the way your mother’s cat Mimi had reached quite an unusual and remarkable age of 24. Thank you for your wonderful post, as well dedicated to Carol.
I think you did really, really well in how you answered your daughter’s questions. I taught 4,5,6 and 7 year old children for 16 years and you have to start from a place of honesty – they know when you don’t! You started from what you knew for sure, as it were – that there is so much love and beauty that it can’t just disappear. That’s such a good answer.
Just out of interest, I’ve never had a psychic experience in my life except for when my cat died and communicated with me..!
Such a wonderful post! I too love your answer about beauty and love never disappearing.
Next year I will turn 70 an age that none of my maternal relatives made it to so death has been on my mind alot this past year. Your words to your daughter have touched me in that deep place where fear resides and are giving it a good run for its money. No matter what happens after death I do believe there will still be beauty and love. That is why each morning I face east and greet the new day with the Navajo morning prayer of walking in beauty throughout the day then I ask for peace and love as well. These are the things that must truely live on.
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Sara, your posts, both this one and Where do Cats go? resonate deeply with me. As do Carol’s words “Why does [Mimi] have to go anywhere?” I’m a veterinary hospice nurse and so we look these questions in the face frequently. And I have lost two cats to the “wherever they go” in the last year. It never gets easier. But, as to Carol’s question. I don’t think they go anywhere. I think they are still with us, sometimes walking with us, but always near. They are just in a different form. Spirit, energy, call it what you like. But, I believe they are still here because I can feel them. Sometimes their presence feels very strong. To me that’s more comforting than some sort of Heaven far away. I love the way you are speaking to your daughter about these difficult concepts. I love that you are raising her outside of a church. I also remember being taught that animals didn’t go to heaven, and thinking it was cruel to teach that we would be eternally separated from those we love so deeply. Sometimes the bond between human and companion animal is stronger than between humans. Thank you for the thought provoking posts.
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