Helping Our Children Understand Death
The Buddha taught that awareness of our death helps us live a happier and more meaningful life, and enables us to prepare for a conscious and peaceful dying experience. In our culture, purposefully contemplating one’s death, or gathering with others to share our thoughts and feelings about death, are certainly not commonplace. Although it is changing somewhat, the medical establishment has long considered death a failure, a defeat, a humiliation or an embarrassment, not only for the dying person, but also for the dying person’s family members and professional caregivers. Many people conceive of their own death as the ultimate personal disaster. And whether we view death as an annihilation and obliteration, or are comforted by the possibility of an afterlife or rebirth, most people tend to think of death as something that is waiting for us at the end of a very long road which we call our life. In the Buddhist tradition, death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. Rather, it is with us every moment. It is at our side, or just over our shoulder, a constant companion every step of the way. Death is also seen as liberation. It is described as the crossing of a threshold, a passage to freedom, sometimes likened to the removal of a tight shoe.
The Buddha said that a human life is a gift beyond measure and a great blessing. Yet the Buddha observed that not very many human beings take full advantage of the gift of their life. Once the Buddha was asked, “How many people use their lives meaningfully?” He scratched the earth with his fingernail, and pointing to the dust that he had picked up under the nail, replied, “This many as compared to the weight of the world.”
In the Bhagavad-Gita, a revered ancient Hindu text, the Divine Krishna is asked, “Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wondrous?” Krishna answers, “That no person, though he or she sees others dying all around them, believes that he or she will die.”
Of course we all know that we will someday die. We know that every living thing will someday die. At the moment of birth our death is guaranteed. This is one of the most obvious facts of our existence. Yet in a way we do not really know it. Our aversion to the fact of our death causes us to deny, ignore, pretend, push away, and constantly distract ourselves. These habits create more fear and aversion, which become obstacles to the deeply satisfying intimacy and connection we seek with ourselves and other people. Aversion to death hinders our ability to live fully. Fear and aversion to death also leave us unprepared to die, and make it difficult to meet our death with peace and confidence.
Buddhism devotes a great deal of attention to the experiences of birth and death, to the development of wholesome qualities in ourselves throughout our lives, and to the question of what happens to us after our physical death. Buddhism has approached these matters practically and experientially, not just intellectually or philosophically. With regard to death and dying, exploration takes place through a variety of meditations that enable the practitioner to contemplate his or her death, and to visualize and “practice” dying.
The Buddha said, “Of all the footprints, that of the elephant is supreme. Similarly, of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.” Death awareness meditations allow us to more deeply comprehend that we will die. In the Buddhist tradition, death awareness practices are divided into four categories: 1) Meditations to help us contemplate that death is inevitable, that the time of our death is uncertain, and that our bodies and our lives are both impermanent and fragile; 2) meditations to help us understand the process of dying and visualize the body’s physiologic systems shutting down as our body dies; 3) meditations to help us understand and visualize the decomposition of the physical body during the days, weeks, months and years following our physical death; and 4) meditations concerned with consciousness transfer at the time of death and the process of rebirth into our next cycle of existence. Consciousness transfer refers to the ability to influence our rebirth by controlling the mind at the time of death.
To someone unfamiliar with these practices, an initial reaction might be perplexity or apprehension. Why devote time and energy reminding myself that I will die, rehearsing what the dying process may be like, and envisioning what happens to my body after I die? We might assume that being more conscious of death would make us fearful of dying or depressed about living. Yet according to the Buddha, it is awareness of death that helps us wake up from the delusion that causes so much suffering in this life. Keeping death always at our side dispels the myth that we might live forever. Death awareness is really about living. It is about becoming more intimate with the truth of our lives. It is about realizing that every moment counts, that what we choose to think and say and do is important. Awareness of our death calls us to live in a more meaningful way, in accordance with our most authentic values.
When we contemplate death in this way, we understand it not only in our mind but also in our body and our heart. This is intuitive knowledge. It naturally blossoms into wisdom. As wisdom increasingly informs our life, we become happier and more peaceful beings. We give and receive love more freely. We are motivated to act with kindness, and to respond with compassion to the suffering of others. Although gradual, there is a certain inner transformation that influences our relationships, our families, our communities, and our world. As the Buddha reminds us, “Life is as fleeting as a rainbow, a flash of lightning, a star at dawn. Knowing this, how can you quarrel?”
Awareness of death also increases our commitment to spiritual practice, precisely because we are acutely aware that our lifespan is both indefinite and finite. This phenomenon, known as samvega in Pali, is translated into English as “spiritual urgency.” Larry Rosenberg describes samvega in his book Living in the Light of Death:
“The urgent need to practiceï¿½can grow out of a heightened sense of the perishable nature of life. It can include a real feeling of shock and a sense not only that life doesn’t last forever but also that the way we have been living is wrong. It might turn our world upside down, sending us off to a whole new way of life. Even if it doesn’t have so dramatic an effect, it can light a fire under our practice. We get much less caught up in power, prestige, money, lust, the acquisition of goods. Dharma teachings start to make real sense to us, and we begin to live them instead of just assenting intellectually. Samvega leads to a conversion of the heart, from an egocentric existence to a search for that which is timeless, vast, and sacred.”
As a parent, I have found that opportunities to contemplate the mystery of death with my children arise continually. I don’t have to search for them and I don’t have to create them. The deaths of plants, animals, and human beings due to both natural and unnatural causes surround us constantly. Examples from our personal lives abound, and newspapers, radio, television and the internet bombard us with a constant onslaught of reports of deaths and destruction of all species of living beings and of our planet earth. Simply observing the cycles of birth and death in the natural world, such as the leaves that fall from the trees each autumn, offers us further opportunities to comprehend change, impermanence, and death.
Our children will inevitably be exposed to the fact of death, and there are many possibilities for how we as parents will guide their understanding of this reality. As with so many aspects of parenting, there is no formula and there is no right way. The choices we make will be influenced by our parenting philosophy, our life experiences, our family conditioning, our comfort level with the subject of death, and our confidence in our ability to meet our children’s emotions with wisdom and compassion.
The four-year old daughter of a friend asked her mother, “Mommy, are you going to die?” My friend assured her that she would not. My friend later told me that this answer seemed right to her at the time, as she didn’t want to arouse fear in her young child. She added that she would explain things more thoroughly as her daughter got older. Another friend told me that when his five-year-old son’s grandmother died, he and his wife decided it was best not to tell their son right away. To explain why their son would no longer enjoy weekly visits to his grandmother’s home, they told him that Grandma had gone away on a long trip. Their plan was to tell their son the truth later on, when he was better equipped to understand death.
I appreciate the intentions of these strategies, and I wish I could justify some way of shielding my own children from the pain of loss and the incomprehensible nature of death, but I simply cannot find such a justification. I am reminded of an experience I had while my husband and I were preparing to become parents through adoption. We were required by the adoption agency to participate in a short series of classes with other prospective adoptive parents. In one session, the social worker elicited our opinions about what was the “right” age to tell a child that he or she was adopted. Members of the group offered a variety of answers, and every person gave the same rationale for their particular opinion. The rationale was “I believe this is the age that the child is capable of understanding adoption.”
I sat stunned listening to this discussion, and it took me a few minutes to identify why I was so surprised. When it was my turn to speak, I mumbled something about how I thought the right time to tell my child about his or her adoption depended mostly on my comfort with the creation of my family through adoption. I asked the group, “When parents bring babies and young children to church or synagogue, do we wonder whether they’re old enough to understand God and religion? When we bake a cake, light candles, and sing happy birthday to our children on their first, second or third birthday, or even on their tenth or eleventh birthday, do we worry that they might be too young to understand the meaning of birth or the significance of a birthday?”
We constantly expose our children to things they couldn’t possibly understand. This is the nature of childhood. They observe how we, their parents, feel and behave in different situations. They listen to our explanations of what’s going on, and await our answers to their questions. What we say will be influenced by our appreciation of each child’s uniqueness, and will naturally change and become more elaborate and sophisticated as our children mature. All along the way, they get out of the experience whatever they can at each stage of their development. I’ve wondered why it should be any different with adoption, or with death for that matter?
Since my children were quite young, I have taken them with me to funerals, memorial services, graveside gatherings, and cemetery burials. They have helped me cook and deliver food to bereaved friends. When such occasions arise, I talk to them about where I am going, what will be happening there, and what the people will likely be feeling, saying, and doing. For example, when preparing to bring food to the home of a friend whose father had suddenly died while visiting from South America, I told my son what had happened and invited him to come with me. He asked, “Do you think everyone will be crying?” I said I thought the adults would be very sad and probably crying, and asked if he thought that would be ok for him. He replied, “Yes, that would be fine. I was just wondering.” I added that my friend’s young daughter would probably not fully understand what was going on, and might want to play with him. He decided to come, and as it turned out, what I’d imagined was pretty much what we found.
When I describe what I believe we will find in these encounters with death and grief, I always add that this is what I think, and that I can’t be certain of exactly what will unfold. After my children have a sense of what to expect, they decide whether or not they want to come. When they accompany me, I offer simple explanations for what is going on, and do my best to provide appropriate and satisfying answers to whatever questions they might ask. We learn about different religious and cultural practices surrounding death and bereavement. I assure my children that our presence is a comfort to the bereaved family, just as the presence of our friends and relatives is a great comfort to our family during times of loss and grief. I would never want to inflict a moment of unnecessary physical or emotional pain on my children. Yet life presents them, as it does every human being, with many such experiences. This is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. “There is suffering in life.” Death is but one example. My role as a parent, as an adult on a Buddhist spiritual path, is to provide a refuge, a safe container, and a mirror of mindfulness for my children’s emotions. My wish is that my children develop acceptance and tolerance for the entire range of their emotions, and that they acquire “emotional fluency” -- the ability to understand and express what they are feeling, as well as understand the emotions of others. These skills will serve them well in all relationships at every stage of their lives.
I realize that helping my children confront death in general, and helping them to grieve actual losses and imagine future ones, is different from helping them consider the inevitability of their own death. In retrospect, it never occurred to me that I would be called upon to inform my children that they would someday die. I never really thought about this detail. I must have assumed they would reach this conclusion on their own, and that whenever they did, we would talk about it. But that’s not how it happened.
As we know, profound realizations generally arrive of their own accord. Pivotal moments in life often come when we least expect them. This particular example occurred some years ago, as my daughter Claudia was about to celebrate her fifth birthday. During the month or two leading up to her November birthday, she was in a state of perpetual excitement. She talked about her birthday constantly, telling anyone who would listen that she would soon be five, and reciting the names of the many friends and relatives who she would invite to her birthday party. Then she wondered aloud who would come, who would be the one to successfully break open our homemade piï¿½ata, what gifts she might receive, and how tired and happy she would be at the end of the day.
One afternoon during this period I was driving Emilio and Claudia to an appointment. Claudia was again announcing that she would soon be five years old, and bubbling excitedly about her birthday party. Emilio, then nine, had apparently heard this one too many times. In a tone of voice that was somewhere between matter-of-fact and exasperation, he said to Claudia, “Ok, you’re almost five. Then you’ll be six, then you’ll be seven, then you’ll be eight, then you’ll be nine, later you’ll be a teenager, then a young adult, then you’ll grow old and then you’ll die.” His proclamation instantly silenced Claudia. Although my eyes were glued to the road in front of me, my ears were straining for her response. Finally it came. She stated firmly, “I am not going to die.” To which Emilio replied, “Yes you are.”
I became aware of my hands grasping the steering wheel and of my chest rising and falling with each breath, wondering how this conversation would unfold. There was a brief volley; Claudia each time repeating yet more firmly, “I am not going to die,” and Emilio answering emphatically, “Yes you are.” Then Claudia fell silent once again. It seemed like an eternity. I continued looking at the road in front of me while listening to what was happening in the back seat. From the silence came Claudia’s sincere question, addressed specifically to me. “Mommy, am I going to die?”
The steering wheel hardened beneath my grip and my breath slowed to a halt. Despite a sense of time moving in slow motion I didn’t have a chance to compose a response. I heard my own voice speaking the stark truth. “Yes, Claudita, someday you will die. I hope it will be after a very long and healthy and happy life, but someday you will die.” She fell silent again, and even Emilio was speechless. Concerned that I might have frightened her, I stole a glimpse of my daughter’s face in the rear view mirror. Her expression was one of bewilderment rather than fear. I wanted to say some wise motherly thing, but nothing came to mind. I continued driving the car. Emilio and I were waiting for what Claudia would say next, and it seemed as if she was listening inside herself, trying to make sense of this new information. Then came her simple question, “Why?”
Emilio had apparently run out of nine-year-old wisdom and I was clearly responsible for answering this question. Part of my mind was frantically searching for the right answer, the developmentally appropriate response from an intelligent and caring mother. Another part of my mind knew that even if there was some perfect answer, there wasn’t time to come up with it. My only choice was to speak from my heart. “The reason that you will someday die, Claudia, is because you are alive now. Everything that is born, everything that is alive, will someday die. Every person, every animal, every insect, every plant and flower and tree will someday die. All living things are born and later die.” She was listening intently, still looking a bit stunned, but starting to comprehend my words.
At this point Emilio found his re-entry into the conversation. He began naming all kinds of plants and animals that will someday die, expanding upon and confirming my thesis. “Our dogs will die someday, and mosquitoes and flies, dolphins and sharks will die, bald eagles and vultures will die, squirrels and skunks will die, grasses and moss, bushes and shrubs, palm trees and pine trees and all the flowers will die, cats and fish will dieï¿½” Claudia had heard enough. The death of the tropical fish in her pre-school classroom was still fresh in her mind. I don’t know if she stopped Emilio or if he simply ran out of steam.
I added one final clarification. “The only things that will not die are things that were never alive, like tables and books and chairs and cars and dishes and all other objects. All these things that were never alive and can’t die will someday get old and break and not work anymore. That’s what eventually happens to all the things that are not alive.”
That was it. There were no further questions from the back seat. My children were onto some other topic of conversation, happily chatting together as I exhaled a soft sigh of relief. I marveled at the profound nature of this brief conversation, and reminded myself to be alert while driving, not only to the road, but also to the passengers. Although I had to laugh, this experience confirmed once again that in our culture at least, important things do happen “in the car.” I also gave silent thanks to the Buddha, for the legacy of wisdom teachings that continue to enrich my life.
Beth Roth is a nurse practitioner who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction and vipassana meditation in Connecticut. She has published descriptive and research articles about meditation in various professional journals. She also writes about parenting and adoption issues for Adoptive Families Magazine, and Nuestros Niï¿½os Bonitos. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website.