09/13/2011 11:05 am ET Updated Nov 13, 2011

Hell If I Know: How Kids Deal With Grief and the Afterlife

According to the experts, and by that I mean the expert, renowned psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Five months into the grieving process myself, and five months into helping my two sons get through it too, I completely concur with Dr. Kübler-Ross. In our case, we did most of our denying and bargaining over the course of my husband's 21-month battle with pancreatic cancer. But since his death, on any given day, at any given moment of the day, we've got anger, depression and acceptance taking turns having their way with us.

We also have -- and I respectfully suggest this as a sixth stage -- Hell.

My younger son is obsessed with Hell. Not because he thinks his Dad is there, but because he's certain his Dad's in Heaven and would really like to be sure he's spending eternity with people who earned their wings and didn't skate in on an apology after, say, an ethnic cleansing spree.

"Do you think Hitler is in Hell?" he asks me over dinner. "He has to be right? But what if he stood before Saint Peter and told him he was sorry? And what if Saint Peter went and got God, and God looked deep into Hitler's soul and saw that he really, truly was sorry. And what if we all don't know it, but God accepted Hitler's apology? And Hitler? He's up there, right now, with nice people like Dad!"

I try to assure him that Hitler is enjoying an especially hot spot in Hell, but he's not having any of it.

"Grandma says we're supposed to believe in a merciful God. Well, if He really is merciful, maybe all the bad people just apologize and everyone gets in. And if everyone gets in, then Hell's a bunch of b.s." He pauses to pop a piece of steak in his mouth, then spits it back out spluttering, Eew, fat! "I half don't believe in Hell," he says, running his tongue along the bottom of his top teeth in an attempt to scrape off the taste, "and I half do."

I begin to suggest that there are probably degrees to God's mercy and that somebody like Osama bin Laden isn't just going to stroll up to the Pearly Gates, apologize and get a pass, but this particular reference sends him right over the top.

"And that's the other thing about Hell," he says, slamming his knife onto his plate. "We really don't know who's calling the shots in Heaven, so for all we know we're all going to Hell. Think about it. If the Catholics control Heaven, do all the Jews go to Hell? And what if the Jews are in charge? Do the Catholics go? And can you imagine if, God forbid, the Taliban are in charge? We're all screwed."

"Burquas for everybody!" I tease.

Round and round he goes, trying to figure out who's controlling the hereafter and weighing the benefits of converting to that particular faith while there's still time. It's funny, in a Larry David/Jerry Seinfeld sort of way, and heartbreaking, too. But I'm proud of him. He's putting together the pieces of his completely upended life, getting a hold on the whole thing, and steadily loosening the grip his grief has had on him.

"Cuy," I say, "You know what I think? I think God is bigger than all the religions humans have put in place. He's no religion and He's all religions."

"So He's like Switzerland," my sweet son interjects, chomping on a piece of steak that, miraculously, meets his exacting standards. "You know, neutral."

"If that helps you, then yes, God is like Switzerland. And when people die, He doesn't consider what color they were, or what church they went to. He just looks deep inside their heart and he knows, in an instant, if they were truly good. And if they were good, they go to Heaven..."

"And if not, they go to Hell," Cuy responds, finishing the sentence for me. "Dad was good," he says quietly, color filling his freckled cheeks.

"Very good," I nod.

"He deserved to go to Heaven. It's cancer that deserves to go to Hell."

I swear he's going to cry, and then suddenly he brightens. "You think maybe diseases go to Hell? Like smallpox and polio and the plague. They deserve to go. And cancer; cancer deserves its own section. What do you think? You think it's possible?"

Hell if I know, hon, but I sure do hope so.