09/10/2013 04:27 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Having 'The Talk': When Your Child Asks About Mortality

Kerry O'Shea Gorgone

It's 8:45 at night. Past his bedtime, but summer's nearly gone, so I've let him stay up late to enjoy the last few lazy August mornings. We've read stories, sung songs, and are snuggling contentedly when my 7-year-old son drops a bombshell: "Mama, what's Heaven like?"

Uh-oh. It's a little late for a conversation like this, but then we don't get to choose the time for these things. Maybe we shouldn't have let him watch Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Okay, probably shouldn't have, but that ship has sailed.

For now, I try to sound knowledgeable and comforting, while having no idea how to answer the inevitable follow up questions. "I don't really know, Sweetheart," I say. "I've never been there."

Silence. Realizing he expects elaboration, I continue: "Some people say it's different for everyone; the most beautiful place you could imagine for yourself. Others say it's a beautiful place, filled with light, where you find all the people you ever loved waiting for you. But like I said, I don't really know, because I've never seen it."

His eyes shimmer wetly in the dark, and I know what he's about to ask. My heart sinks as he asks "Mama, am I going to die?"

Instantly, I'm transported back to 1982, when I asked my father the same question. Remembering that I found it comforting at the time, I give my son the same response. "Not for a long, long time, Baby."

More silence, followed by a phrase that I only understand because I know the context. "I wish there really were elves, and ships into the West, and undying lands." In Lord of the Rings, elves live forever (or at least, they don't die of natural causes), and retire to the "Undying Lands" once they reach a certain age.

I tell him we all wish there were elves, and magic, and somewhere we could go to live happily forever. And that's what Heaven is to some people.

We talk about our ancestors, and how they've died, but they're not gone. "We are what they were," I explain. "Their eye or hair color, their strength, their talent for singing or their sense of humor. They live on through us." My son seems calmer now.

"I still wish I was an elf," he says sadly. Time for a tactical adjustment: mythology to theology.

"Well, some people believe that you do live forever, but as different people," I say casually, observing his response. He perks up. "They believe that your soul comes back and you live as someone else so you can learn new lessons. Like if you were mean to someone, you come back as someone who's bullied, so you understand what that feels like, or if you were kind and good, you come back as someone who's well cared for as a reward."

"I want to believe what you believe," comes the answer. "Oh no, Honey," I tell him. "You need to decide what feels true for you. You should never believe something just because I do."

"Okay," he says. "I believe I'll come back."

As he drifts off to sleep, dreaming of gray ships setting off for magical lands, I hope I said the right thing. I also hope I know what the "right thing" is for my younger son when he asks me the same thing a couple of years from now. It's different for every child.

I hold my son close, smelling his hair, and wish, more than a little, that there really were "Undying Lands," at least for him. It'll be a while before I introduce my second son to Lord of the Rings, I think.