Contemplating Death with Young Children
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
A few years ago we found a baby bunny outside all alone. We took it in and fed it for a couple weeks. Every time it would drink milk from the dropper it would get an adorable white mustache, so we named it Milk-Moosh. One day, I heard a terrible squealing sound and found that a crow had come and was attacking our pet through the wire cage. After scaring the bird off, we saw that its leg was seriously injured. Despite our efforts, the baby bunny died a week or so later.
I thought my two young kids, who had cooed and cuddled this little thing every day, would be heartbroken and disturbed. To my shock, they were totally unfazed. They were not callous, but they simply accepted it. I had anticipated having to mindfully counsel and help them process what they had witnessed, but they were already miles ahead of me - spontaneously sharing stories about how sweet and special that bunny was, wondering if next time it would be born as a peacock, matter-of-factly pointing out where its body was put to decompose and feed the bugs, feeling glad that they were able to give it a loving home for the short time that we did…
I asked myself, How did this turn out to be their default response to death?
Upon reflection, I found that parenting from the principles of Advaita Vedanta gives rise to this deeply easeful and natural relationship with death. Later, when a child in one of their classes died in an accident, I found this grounded approach to life and death gave the same level of solace - we could celebrate what was special about that child’s life and acknowledge their death without it sparking earthquakes of fear of our own mortality.
Recently someone asked me how to talk to children about death, and I want to share these ideas with you as you lay groundwork for children who are deeply accepting and at peace with the cycle of life and death.
Principle #1: Everything Goes Back to the Earth
Leaves turn brown and fall from the tree. Old buildings crumble into rubble. Ants eat dead worms on the sidewalk. Whatever was once there, will one day disintegrate and become the raw material for new creations. Everything you can hear, touch, see, taste or smell is created, exists and goes back to the Earth. Finding opportunities in your daily life to reinforce this Truth can be as simple as observing how kitchen scraps change into compost and then nourish a flowering plant on the balcony, or seeing how a bird is taking a dry fallen twig and building a nest, or noticing a mushroom pushing up out of a decaying dead tree trunk. This cycle of birth, life and death can be noticed everywhere. Yes, even when driving by a cemetery or cremation ground and a child asks what it is, “That, child, is where people bring dead bodies to send them back to the earth by putting them underground or burning them into ash.” Simple and matter of fact. It is not necessary to directly teach this as a law. Simply by observing and admiring each stage wherever you find it, the child will remain tuned in to this cosmic rhythm.
Principle #2: We Share a Common Desire to Live
Look for occasions to point out the will to live shared by all beings. When a lizard scampers away or a bird flies off - “Oh they heard you coming and were afraid you would get too close and step on them.” When the child almost falls off the big slide at the park - “Ah, feel how fast your heart is beating! You really thought you were going get hurt there.” When an ant frantically scrambles to get out of a puddle - “See how even this tiny ant is afraid it will drown and is using all its energy to get free.” We all want to live. Understanding that every living being shares this desire flowers into empathy, compassion and care for the plants, animals and people in our lives.
Though common to all living things, this fundamental desire to live is described by Sage Patanjali as a deeply rooted ignorance of our True Self. On some level, all of us believe that we will cease to exist when the body does, and this false identification with the perishable body seeds a fear of death that is difficult to shake. While this ignorance of the Soul and resulting fear of death, called Abhinivesha in Sanskrit, is too mature a concept to introduce to young children, parents may find inner clarity by reading my blog post on the topic on the Vedika Global website where I reflect on my teacher Acharya Shunya’s teachings on the subject.
Principle #3: Remember the Ever-present Soul
The ultimate truth remains that there is a presence within us that does not die when the body breaks down. To remember, again and again, day in and day out, that I am really my Soul, my Atman, which is indestructible, timeless, changeless, without birth or death… this is the only balm for our deep fear of death.
As parents, we can use practices, language and teaching moments to reinforce the ever-present Soul. Send a consistent message that what makes us valuable and gives power to our body and mind is the Soul. We can find chances to implant Soul Reminders everywhere, if we know to look. While watching the Sun rise we can whisper to our child, “See dear, all night long we thought the Sun had disappeared, but it was there all along and now it has come back to greet us!” Choosing to show our appreciation for the Soul qualities of our children rather than their body-based qualities goes a long way in shaping their identification with their Atman rather than their perishable body. Just as often as we tell them they are cute, pretty or handsome, let’s also tell them, “I love seeing you smile because I can see the happiness in your heart shining in your eyes.” Or at night before bed after a day with more tantrums than usual, we can say, “You had a rough day today, but I know that deep inside you are strong and peaceful and kind. I am sure you will find a way to come back to that deepest Self when you feel upset next time.”
The Changeable and the Unchanging Become Clear
When a child is grounded in the cyclical nature of the material world (everything goes back to the Earth eventually), and that there is a part of us that is beyond birth and death (a Soul that never dies), they have the benefit of a bedrock of permanence amidst the changeability of the world. Changes shake them less because they have a feeling that there is always something constant. They are led to a nuanced understanding that physical bodies / things disintegrate into the earth when they die, and it is natural to want to live, yet we should remember that there is a part of us that does not die with the body. This becomes our baseline understanding of the world and how it works.
Healthy Questions and How to Respond
Everything up until now is the groundwork to be done each and every day. Perhaps sparked by their own curiosity, or a death of someone they know, children will come up with all kinds of questions.
Inevitable Question #1: When and why do we die?
I simplify the Vedic teachings to tell my children that each Soul comes to earth with certain work to do (this is their prarabdha karma to be experienced in a certain lifetime). When the Soul has completed the work it is meant to do in a lifetime, the body dies and the Soul goes back to where it came from, where it waits to be born again in another body. The body never dies a moment before or a moment after this work is complete, and there is nothing we can do to change when it happens.
Inevitable Question #2: Will I die soon? Do only old people die? When will Mom and Dad die?
I tell the child that we do not know when anyone will die. It only happens when that Soul’s work on Earth is done, but that I have a feeling we all have a lot more work to do here on Earth. Our job is to keep doing our work the best we can, and keep our body healthy so it can be strong. There is no need to worry or question when we will die; it is not in our hands.
These answers seem to satisfy the child. As they grow older, the nuance and complexity of this conversation can take on more layers. We can have deeper conversations. But this foundation feels sensitive and honest- not distracting from or candy-coating the reality that bodies die and the person is no longer there, but also an empowered message of our essential independence from the perishable body.
Space for Being in Grief
Remembering the happiness we felt when we had a person or pet with us only reinforces the message that Souls are here for a purpose. Allow time for your child to share memories, tell stories, share what they will miss most about that being. When layered over the Truths of the inevitability of death and recognition of the eternal Soul, dwelling on the memory of the being we no longer physically have with us proves that lives have meaning and impact those around us. Healthy remembrance normalizes the discussion, opens doors for questions and keeps the trust and transparency in our relationships with our children.
Let us help our children have wise default relationships with life’s mysteries rather than fear-based reactions. With creativity and practice we can adapt even the loftiest spiritual Truths to their everyday experiences.
How have you dealt with death alongside the children in your life? What messages about death from your childhood have you had to un-learn along your spiritual path?
Ishani Naidu is a long term student of Acharya Shunya. She serves as admin of the Vedic Contemplations by Acharya Shunya Facebook group and invites you to engage with Acharya Shunya’s teachings and join in the discussions there. Ishani offers workshops on daily living with the principles of Ayurveda and Vedanta for children, teens, adults and parents. Her first children’s book on these themes is being published by Harper Collins India in 2020. Connect with her at www.wholepeace.in or on Instagram @ishanilauren https://www.instagram.com/ishanilauren/