I have a lot of friends who are starting families. In the past six months I’ve watched many of them fret openly on social media about the exposure their children have to the recent tragedies we endure and wonder how they will explain bad occurrences and even death.
Someday too I will probably be faced with these same questions. And, I consider, ‘how would I explain it.’ An interesting thought came to my mind in watching some of the coverage by the media and the Twitterati. There’s an acceptable script already in place that is foisted as the homogenized American answer and it is clear interviewees generally don’t break from it.
Two questions immediately came to mind in regards to this. First, is this the same answer used a hundred years ago and will it still be the same answer years from now. And more importantly, for me, second, would it be the answer I would give to my child.
Death is their fate, the gift which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy – J RR Tokein
When my child is inevitably faced with death I will obviously have to craft my answer based upon their psychological and emotional development stage. However, from day one, I do believe my first response will be, “I don’t know actually. Nobody does. But some of us believe…”
What I do know is this: no one does factually know what occurs when we die or why exactly it happens. We have conjecture, we have theory, we have beliefs and those fall on cultural, social, religious, intellectual and emotional lines that are entirely too complex to discredit their existence. In that complex set of oft conflicting assumptions lies the world around us and for my child this is their first opportunity to experience that.
The fact is death is the cessation of the physical body being alive. Even that can be a bit tricky due to technology, but that’s probably a mostly amiable answer. After that, everything is fair game.
What happens after death? We don’t exactly know but some people believe nothing happens, your body just ceases to be, while others believe the soul, the part of the non-physical identity of the being goes to either heaven or hell based upon a judgement of it’s life on Earth, while others believe that for now the dead lay in wait until the forthcoming judgement day, while others believe that the soul can be transformed, some into spiritual energy that exists in planes between worlds like ghosts say, while others believe the soul is reincarnated into other beings, while others still don’t believe in the soul per say but think the residual energy of your body is released into the world in other ways.
There are so many potential answers it can be difficult to chose one and dangerous in posing the answer as a singular idea. Children accept such things as fact, of which, none of these inherently are, and can build bias and potentially bigotry against those who do not share their perception. It is fine if you believe one over the other and wish perhaps to teach this as a form of truth but without the acceptance that truth and fact are not one-in-the-same you do the child a disservice and an injustice by creating creed based hatred against those who don’t conform.
Personally, I don’t have a firm grasp of what happens after you die because no one actually knows. I have as good an imagination as anyone and researched a lot of religious and philosophical ideas about faith and ideology and feel personally like it actually could be a combination or variation of a number of those. Since I’m not dictated by doctrine of a religion or a familial preference my intellectual approach leads me to come to conclusions that borrow from the different lores and myths of the afterlife.
It’s ok to assume they are “in a better place” and for many young children that is probably enough, but at some point that’s not enough and that’s where my concern lies in presenting a singular, definitive response to a question that honestly doesn’t contain such an answer in the real world. I imagine it is difficult if you aren’t of a Christian Heaven-as-the-afterlife belief to raise your child in the wake of such aftermath as not only are your beliefs trivialized by the media by not being covered you can easily be chastised by society for not conforming to the Americanized Heaven homogenization story.
It goes beyond the afterlife. Physical body “disposal” proceedings can be equally as complex, especially when the child is faced with the prospect attending or being exposed to a wake, funeral, memorial or other kind of service or gathering. There are a large number of traditions based on religions, ethnicity, social caste and other beliefs or constraints than can impact this and yet anything other than the typical House of Worship ceremony steeped in mourning and in-ground deposition rarely is spoken of. Yet, being buried in the Earth of a cemetery isn’t the only place for a body to be laid to rest. There’s almost this be-all end-all approach to saying in-ground burial is the rule of thumb for dead bodies at a sacrifice of anything from cremation to mummification to say burial at sea and can be part of a multitude of types of memorial services from the solemn to the celebratory.
The narrow, singular answer in explaining what happens to the body is laced with many of the same biases and potential creation bigotry as explaining the afterlife and often intertwined. I hope my death results in a celebration of my life and the cremation of my physical body and no one is ashamed or afraid to accept that wish or participate in such a transformation of my life on Earth. I hope that there is enough respect by that point that it won’t be questioned and and open-mindedness enough to support it as normal, because in many cultures, it is and always has been. I hope in explaining that my child will see the vast arrays of coping mechanisms different people employ when confronted with the dead.
And then there is the ever complex why did this happen answer. The most popular answer happens to be in my anecdotal experience is that it is God’s plan. But which God’s plan? And, if it is God’s plan why did he chose to take someone away potentially prematurely in such a non-peaceful manner? Imparting your faith to you child is one thing but the reality is none of us know why such things occur and by treating something as concrete as the cessation of life with an answer as to why that is seemingly as concrete when it is, in fact, not is lying to them. There are no hard and fast set of facts that define the justification of death, only the immediate cause, for the most part. Justifying death in a singular, solitary manner might work in the context of religious faith but it again comes at the expense to young brains at understanding why someone believes something else and how beliefs can coexist if there’s only one answer presented.
Perhaps, if I don’t believe in a judgmental or vengeful God or a pre-planned dictation of life and opt for the belief of free will it isn’t about God’s plan as much as it is about the circumstances resulting from the interrelated complex decision everyone makes and the web of existence. If I chose this answer it is because I choose it of the many possibilities that exist, for children, they aren’t typically given possibility, they are given fairy tale, they are given mythology, they are given it under the prospect of faith and religion but none-the-less aren’t give it in a way that provides them with the understanding that other’s don’t take faith for fact and in fact, there is no answer and someday they will either have to come to terms with such or rebel, often poorly, against the prospect of facing those with differing opinions on why bad things happen to good people.
If this sounds like I am railing against the organization or religion or social currency, I am and I am not at the same time. Coming to an understanding of faith is a long, complex process. Many faith’s from an anthropological standpoint have been developed because there was a need to explain the unexplainable and may of the traditions that go with faith are meant to provide comforts and
I’m not saying not to share what you believe to a child, I will express my beliefs to mine. But to best prepare them for the reality of the world and that beliefs are varied and sometimes conflicting I would frame the supposition of belief with a range of what the prospects are. It will open their mind to a greater empathy, a greater understanding and a greater acceptance of the differences that will challenge their life as they experience more of the world.
It isn’t about giving the full historical context, or all of the possible permutations of beliefs and so on, it’s about giving enough information at the right time to provide an understand of the possibilities while providing comfort. Death is difficult and over the course of history to different people, including the wide range of people that make up the modern American citizenry. True respect of the American heritage is taking the opportunity in death to highlight the beauty of diversity in life.