Five-year-old Julianna Snow has never been healthy enough to attend Sunday school at the City Bible Church in Portland, Oregon, where her family belongs, so most of what she knows about heaven, she knows from her parents.
They tell her that heaven is where she’ll be able to run and play and eat, none of which she can do now. Heaven is where she’ll meet her great-grandmother, who shared Julianna’s love of shiny, sparkly, mismatched clothes.
God will be in heaven, too, they tell her, and he will love her even more than they do.
But Michelle Moon and Steve Snow explain that they won’t be in heaven when Julianna arrives there, and neither will her big brother, Alex. She’ll go to heaven before them because she has a severe case of an incurable neurodegenerative illness called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.
Her coughing and breathing muscles are so weak that the next time she catches even a cold, the infection could settle in her lungs, where it could cause a deadly pneumonia. Her doctors believe that if they can save her under those circumstances — and that’s a big if — she will likely end up sedated on a respirator with very little quality of life.
There’s no debate about the medical facts of Julianna’s condition. But there is debate about something her parents have chosen to do: They asked their daughter, at the age of 4, if she would want to go to the hospital the next time she becomes dangerously ill, or would she want to stay home, where she would die.
Julianna has said she doesn’t want to go to the hospital. She wants to go to “heaven.”
Before having these discussions with her daughter, Michelle looked online for guidance about end-of-life talks with a 4-year-old. Finding nearly nothing, she started a blog of her own in hopes of helping other families in the same situation. Later, she contributed to The Mighty, a website where people write about grappling with disabilities and devastating diseases.
Michelle: Julianna, if you get sick again, do you want to go to the hospital again or stay home?
Julianna: Not the hospital
Michelle: Even if that means that you will go to heaven if you stay home?
Julianna: Yes… I hate NT (naso-tracheal suction, where a tube was placed down her nose into her lungs without sedation). I hate the hospital.
Michelle: Right. So if you get sick again, you want to stay home. But you know that probably means you will go to heaven, right?
Michelle: And it probably means that you will go to heaven by yourself, and Mommy will join you later.
Julianna: But I won’t be alone.
Michelle: That’s right. You will not be alone.
Julianna: Do some people go to heaven soon?
Michelle: Yes. We just don’t know when we go to heaven. Sometimes babies go to heaven. Sometimes really old people go to heaven.
Julianna: Will Alex (her 6-year-old brother) go to heaven with me?
Michelle: Probably not. Sometimes people go to heaven together at the same time, but most of the time, they go alone. Does that scare you?
Julianna: No, heaven is good. But I don’t like dying.
Michelle: I know. That’s the hard part. We don’t have to be afraid of dying because we believe we go to heaven. But it’s sad because I will miss you so much.
Julianna: Don’t worry, I won’t be alone.
Michelle: I know. I love you.
Michelle: Yes, I love you madly. I’m so lucky.
Julianna: And I’m so lucky.
Julianna: Because you love me madly.