The other day, my daughter asked me one of the two questions that parents most dread. No, it was not the one where she asked how she came to exist, that delightful conversation has yet to come! Rather, her query was about the other end of life (no pun intended).
Mama, what happens after you die?
Now, to know my daughter is to know that a superficial, partial or vague answer just will not do. If the response does not satisfy her insatiably curious little mind, she will delve, prod and exhaust every angle she can think of.
Once, as she was strapped into her car seat in the back of the car, it suddenly piqued her curiosity to find out how I had this ‘magical’ power to make the car move. And so she asked. But how does it move just by pressing a pedal? How do you make it go fast? How do you make it go slow? How does it stop? What is your other foot doing? Can I see the pedals?
See what I mean?
Ok, so, what happens after you die?
Laced into the very question is the need, in addition to the factual information, for emotional reassurance. Most grown-ups struggle to accept the implications of death; it is only normal that it would cause some anxiety in children. The answers given, even the words chosen, have to be carefully weighed to strike the right balance.
And then there is the problem of absolutes. For kids, things are black or white, yes or no … in other words, definitive. Just as they need routines, they crave certainty. But really, who among us can be absolutely sure about what happens after death?
Of course, each faith answers this very question according to its own set of beliefs. But even reaching into mine for the answer, how could I even begin to explain the notions of the soul, reincarnation, nirvana or eternal bliss to a 5-year old? Compendiums have been written expounding on each, where to begin??
I had about a millisecond to decide how I was going to tackle this, as she stared at me with her trusting big eyes.
Thinking this would be a good time acquaint her with the notions that not everything in life is known, that people disagree with one another on important questions and that I don’t have all the answers, I decided to start with a general approach and gradually make my way to the state of nirvana or moksha (which for simplicity’s sake means union with God or eternal bliss). It seemed like a good plan.
I took a deep breath and began.
Do you remember when we talked about different religions? Yes. Well people from different religions have different ideas about what happens after you die. For example, Christians believe that people go to heaven. What’s Heaven? Christians believe it is a beautiful, perfect place where you are always happy and nothing bad ever happens to you. But what is there in Heaven? I’m not sure, but I think everything that you love. So, in Heaven, you can eat candies and ice cream and it’s not bad for you? And you can ride your bike all day? And if you fall and break your arm [a current reality for her], it won’t hurt?
Uh-oh, first inkling that this conversation was not heading in the direction I had planned.
So I sped the discussion along and discovered it was a tad tough for a pint-sized person to understand the distinction between the body and the soul, at which point I careened to the exciting and ultimate destination (also of the soul) where, according to our faith, you get to be with God all the time!
Nope, it couldn’t compete with Heaven and the candies.
I crashed and burned on this first spiritual talk with my daughter. Nirvana seemed positively boring compared to Heaven. Of course, I had deliberately chosen not to describe Heaven’s counterpoint, Hell.
Thankfully, I am sure I will get another crack at giving her all the necessary information so that she can make up her own mind about what she believes. Because if there is one thing we know about kids, it is that they love repetition.
And while there may be few certainties in life, of that I am positively sure.