Pin It
Friday, July 15th, 2011

What Happens When We Die Mummy?

By
explaining-death-to-children © kryczka istockphoto

We’ll begin with Clover who is four, nearly five. We can guarantee that whatever the situation, she will ask the questions that are the most direct and awkward for adults, but logical and pertinent for her (and probably us too, when we admit it).

 

 

But first l must introduce you to our family. I am Emma. I have been married to my husband Jackfor ten years, and we have two daughters—Amber, eight, and Clover, four. Jack is a freelance photographer and I am an actress. We have been practising Tibetan Buddhists for ten years but both come from a Christian background.
Clover and Amber’s Grampsie (Jack’s father) died suddenly two years ago. Amber has processed his death in her own quiet way, but Clover–who was only two years old at the time–wants answers. He is still very much alive in her four-year-old mind.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the idea of reincarnation is integral to the construction of much of its teachings. According to Buddhist teachings, we are reincarnated after death and born again in another form—human, spirit or animal. If we are lucky it will be in another human form. Reincarnation is central to the karmic law of cause and effect. Something always continues as the result of a previous event—it’s just hard for us to pinpoint the continuation after death as being one form or another. The physical absence of someone after death is probably more shocking to adults than children—children are remarkably flexible and adaptable.

 
Clover and Amber’s grandmother, with whom Clover is very close, is a devout Christian. She firmly believes that as Grampsie lived a good life, he is now at Christ’s side with God in heaven, and she will be reunited with him when her time comes. She doesn’t hesitate to tell this to Clover.

 
Clover, of course, would like proof that this is what is going to happen. Because now she has heard two viewpoints, she boldly surmises, “The real thing is, that we can’t prove Grampsie has gone to heaven, can we? Because you can only know that once you have died.”

 
So what do I tell Clover about death, given the conflicting belief systems she has heard? I believe that if we don’t tell children anything about death, we would be denying our parental responsibilities to prepare them for a world riddled with death and destruction. Death is certainly part of life, and we are only building fear and illusion if we deny this fact to ourselves and to our children. So I tell her that some people like Granny believe we go to heaven after we die and some believe we are reborn in a new life as babies. While I know that her four-year-old brain cannot understand the intricacies of Buddhist and Christian philosophies, I hope I have given her choices and trust that children process complex information in their own way.

 
I initially wondered if offering the children these choices in belief systems would confuse them. But the most profound discovery I have made is that the coexistence of two sets of beliefs presents no conflict in their minds, indicated by Clover’s next question: “How long do you spend in heaven before you are born again?” (Tibetans believe it is no longer than 49 days in the Bardo, or in-between state.) It appears that by presenting them with different sets of beliefs, we are introducing them to the process of grappling with the profound questions of life and death.

 
One of the most appealing things about studying Buddhism is that scepticism is a built-in part of the process. The historical Buddha and contemporary Buddhist teachers all tell us not to take teachings and traditions at face value, but rather to test out the principles of Buddhism in the experimental lab of our own lives. We should not blindly accept anything without the strength of experience to support it.

 
And there has never been a bigger testing ground in our lives than the household we are running now, with children. One of Jack’s favourite quotes about reincarnation is from Voltaire. “It is no more surprising to be born twice than once; everything in nature is resurrection.”

 

 

While I certainly cannot prove reincarnation to myself or to my daughter, it is an idea that seems no more ludicrous than the atheist notion that one minute we are here and the next after death we are not, or the Christian idea that we sit at God’s side for eternity in heaven.

 
Clover is always ready to throw a new test into the equation. She announces on another occasion when she arrives home after school, “Actually, I know where Grampsie is. He’s sitting on a cloud above my school checking that I am behaving myself. Chantel told me, because that’s where her Grandad is, and that’s where all grandparents are.” No debate. Suddenly she’s sure, at least for today.
I am prepared to accept that the Buddhist idea of reincarnation is nothing more than a metaphor for the idea that all of our actions in life—good or bad—have the power to continue after death in the lives of others that we manage to touch.

 
None of us in the house are sure where Grampsie has gone, but like Clover, I am happy to carry on finding new ways of exploring…together.

© 2011 – 2013, Jack and Helen Hamilton. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:


The African Guide to Co-sleeping

10 must-read tips on co-sleeping from Africa

Almost African: My Childhood as a Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

The freedom of growing up as the only Serbo-Croatian in Sudan

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Jack and Helen Hamilton have been married for ten years and have two daughters, Amber, aged 8 and Clover, 4. Jack is a freelance photographer and Helen is an actress and writer. Born and raised in South London, they continue to live and raise their own family there. They have been practising Tibetan Buddhists for around a decade, but both come from Christian backgrounds.

Leave us a comment!

1 Comment
  1. Commentsclaire   |  Monday, 18 July 2011 at 1:51 am

    lovely piece about a dilemma i too recently faced with my 4 year old daughter – especially as from my spiritual viewpoint there are three possibilities to life after death. she lapped all three up and is enjoying ascribing what she thinks has happened to for example a famous lion here in kenya that died.









Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!



A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
For quite sometime, whenever there were articles that surfaced the internet concerning whether it was appropriate to breastfeed in public, I was so baffled. As a Mongolian, I was so shocked that som...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
For quite some whenever there was articles circulated on the internet concerning whether it is appropriate to breastfeed in public. As a Mongolian, I was so shocked that some countries considered i...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
I live with my Czech in laws with my four children and my Czech is crap I try to learn but the baby doesn't sleep well I'm a constant zombie and the brain just doesn't work. Plus being tired makes m...
From How I Reclaimed My House from My Mother-in-Law
I am so glad I found this site. I am happy to see that I am not alone in experiencing 'family issues' after getting married. I am not from the West but I am married to a Canadian. I never truly unde...
From How I Reclaimed My House from My Mother-in-Law
[…] my most favourite article about breastfeeding called Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan by Ruth Kamnitzer. I have no doubt that Mongolians would find our social stigmas around [R...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
[…] sources and reasons for the rules of these countries too, such as China, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, and Hungary (see above re “Titanic”).  Has anyone got s...
From International Baby Naming Laws–Are They a Good Thing?
[…] Source Inculture Parents […...
From Lotus Lanterns for Wesak (Buddha Day)
If your nerves shat down your hormones , can you get pregnant by injecting a sperm in you to develop a baby . Please let me know...
From Baby-Making the Hindu Way
[…] Diwali Lantern from InCultureParent […...
From Diwali Craft: Make a Lantern

More The Religious Life of Children