By Tara Spinelli
Web Exclusive - December 16, 2008
When our much-loved dogs Daisy and Laverne died in rapid succession, I had the painful task of telling my kids, then six- and three-years-old. At times like that, I start to wish I had the comfort of religion to offer Miranda and Kai. Then I could have reassured them that their four-legged friends were running in that big lawn in the sky, eternally chasing God's creatures of the bushy-tailed, backyard variety, and that one day, we'd all be together again—or something like that.
I remember how a relative once struck back when I earnestly asked why it's important to marry within your faith: "What would you know about this?! You're nothing!" If you want to label my religion, I guess that's an accurate statement. You see, I'm the daughter of a never-practicing Jewish mother who dislikes (understatement) religion and a father who grew up and self-identifies as Catholic, but doesn't participate actively in religious life. My parents' divorce when I was six-years-old must have ended whatever discussion there was about choosing a religion for me, and cemented the default plan to skip it.
If I had a religion, I imagine it would equip me with helpful words and a license to use them. But God is too enormous to reference for explaining why and how without an authentic voice. So when each dog died, I could only give a fact-based account of why a body can't go on forever and suggest that anyone we love is always with us in our hearts.
As it happened, I managed to say something that would become true for my kids as they reckoned with the loss of their dogs. Daisy and Laverne may not literally be in our hearts as Kai pictures them—two miniature canines in permanent cardiac residence—but they are most definitely with us. More than one year and one newly adopted dog named Roxy later, they are a daily topic of conversation. Just the other day, Kai said, "Wouldn't it be funny to take a picture of Daisy and Laverne and Roxy with their arms around each others' shoulders?" Apparently having understood the indisputable absence that death creates just as well as the sense that our loved ones are part of us, he added, "But we can't because Daisy and Laverne died. They're with us in our hearts, but they can't be in the picture because they died."
If my experience is typical, I'd say that if you're not raised with a formal religion, it's really hard to adopt one later. Now that I have kids, it's not just my religious identity in question, but theirs, too. Sometimes I think we should just pick a religion and stick with it, figuring the particulars matter less than the time spent in reflection, and ideally, in relationship with God. When it comes to navigating the losses, sorrows, and injustices that Miranda and Kai will witness and face throughout life, I can see how religion might help. Religion might also remind them of why they should be humble, have empathy, and feel gratitude. The company of other like-minded people gathering in a house of worship could offer my family a certain sense of belonging and community. We might have an understanding of ourselves and a set of beliefs that could help us find our way, give us solace, and motivate us to do the right thing. And then it dawned on me that we already do.
I can't explain what happens to us when we die, but I can help my kids understand that when you make a positive impact on others, you live and live on in meaningful ways. I can't explain why bad things happen, but I can help my kids learn how to accept this fact so they don't get mired in sorrow and disappointment. I can't explain why there are such stark disparities in what some of us have and others don't, but I can show my kids how the haves like us can work to close the gap.
Without religion, maybe a sense of purpose is a sense of God. Since it's what I've got to share with my kids, in an act of what I can only describe as faith, I'm hoping (if not praying) for the best. And that's not nothing.
Tara Spinelli is a writer from New Jersey. Her blog is taraspinelli.com.