How to (not) Explain the Afterlife to Your Toddler

Last night was my turn to put Maya to bed. We still haven’t quite gotten to the point where we can read her a story, tuck her in, give her a kiss and leave the room. That night I reminded her that soon she would be a big girl and mommy would be able to leave the room and she would go to sleep all by herself. She replied “But I don’t want to be a big girl mommy!” We went through a few rounds of her trying to get my attention, with me responding either with silence, or with a robotic “I love you Maya. Go to sleep.” The last time we had this battle of wills she started crying saying “Mommy I have a stinky finger! Mommy I have a stinky finger!! I need to wash it! Mommy? Mommy!!? MOMMY!!!! My curiosity beat out my resolve. “Maya why do you have a stinky finger?” “Because I put it in my bum.” Faaaabulous.

After several minutes of silence, I started to plan my escape. All of a sudden I heard her little voice, sounding like she was on the verge of tears. “Mommy I don’t want to grow up because when you and Daddy grow up I will still be a kid and then I won’t have a mommy and daddy anymore.” Part of me was impressed by her ever more cunning strategies to procrastinate going to bed. My curiosity, as it often does, won again. I responded. “Maya that’s a long way off. Mommy and Daddy will be here for a long time.” “But when I die I won’t be able to play with Pinky Bear anymore. And I won’t have my bed anymore. And I won’t live in this house anymore!” she wailed. I thought, “Where on earth did this come from?” quickly followed by “How the heck do I respond to that?” I had not yet prepared for this level of awareness about death. I was sure I would have at least a few years to prepare satisfactory for these types of questions. I was on the spot.

“Maya I’m sure Pinky Bear will be with you. He’s your best friend. He’ll always be with you.” That did not appease her. “But I won’t live in this house anymore and I want to live in this house forever! And I won’t have my mommy and daddy anymore.” she whimpered. I tried to think of a suitable response. It didn’t help that I do not have the standard answer that religion often supplies. I didn’t believe in heaven or hell. The concept of reincarnation felt a little too esoteric for a three-year old.  

I thought about my own beliefs about what happens when we die. My beliefs were not taught to me explicitly, but rather were revealed to me.  It was during a wilderness program called Guiding Spirit (which I’ve written about before in previous posts). We were camping in a place called Ghost River in Alberta. When the First Nations lived there it was known for giving people powerful dreams or visions. One night I had a terrible nightmare. In it one of the program’s teachers was behaving in a childish and cruel way. I woke up terrified. The dream stayed with me the entire day, leaving me with a terrible feeling. I decided that I needed to dig a bit deeper to understand why it was clinging to me. I went into my tent, closed my eyes and started to meditate. As I re-created the dream I felt the same panic and helplessness. Instead of running from it though, I kept my eyes closed and let the vision guide me where it wanted to go.

All of a sudden, it was like a window had opened in my mind. I could see the entire universe, bathed in brilliant darkness. In the middle was a sphere of moving light and energy, glowing as if it were on fire. And there was a little speck of light that was making its way to the massive orb. I knew that I was that speck of light. It reached the sphere and was absorbed. At that moment I felt the most incredible and complex emotion I have ever experienced. I was overcome with a feeling of homecoming, reunion, joy, relief and love. It filled my body. It overflowed. Tears of joy streamed down my face. As the feeling ebbed, it left me with a sense of deep peace. I have since wondered if there is a word for that mix of complex emotions, and the only English word I can think of is ecstasy. But I don’t really like that word. Maybe there is a better one in Italian. Or French.

That experience resolved the intense longing for something I could never quite define, a longing I had felt for most of my adult life.  It also provided me with an answer to what happens when we die. We go home.

Several years later I was talking to a good friend that I met in law school. I called him my spiritual advisor. He is an Orthodox Jew and one of the most amazing (and hilarious) men I have ever met. At one point in the conversation he asked me about my beliefs. I took a moment to think about it. “Oh! I remember!” I said, and then proceeded to tell him what was revealed to me at Ghost River. I had not told anyone about that vision. He found it quite funny that it took me a moment to remember my beliefs. His beliefs are as familiar as his own skin. What struck me was what he said next, that what was revealed to me was very similar to the teachings of his faith. I wondered if that coincidence was meaningful.

As I sat in the dark, listening to Maya’s whimpers, I recalled that vision.  I tried to explain that when she dies she goes home and sees all the people she loves, but was interrupted by her wails that Great Grandpa won’t get to play with her anymore. Trying to explain to a three-year old that death is like being welcomed home might be a bit too abstract. Her sadness about her Great Grandpa not getting to play with her brought tears to my eyes. He had died of cancer the year before at 91 years of age, just after celebrating his 70th wedding anniversary. We had been able to spend a week with him a few months before he died. It was the first and last time Maya would meet him.

I picked Maya up out of her crib. She snuggled next to me in the big overstuffed chair in her room. Tears fell from my eyes as I reminded her that her dreams were magical. If she wanted Great Grandpa to play with her again, all she had to do was ask him to come and play with her in her dreams before she went to sleep. Then, when she was fast asleep, Great Grandpa would come and play with her in her dreams. “But what if he doesn’t come in my dream?” she cried. “If you ask him to come play with you in your dreams, he will come Maya. Your dreams are magic. Anything can happen in your dreams. You can fly in your dreams, you can breathe underwater, you can swim with whales and dolphins. Just ask Great Grandpa to come and he will.”

She was quiet for a moment and then tearfully said “Great Grandpa will you please play with me in my dream tonight?” We sat together in that chair, with her nestled under my arm, leaning against my chest. Within minutes she was fast asleep. I let her sleep there beside me, soaking in the weight of her body. I marveled at the conversation we had just had, wondering what had all brought it on.

It was the next day that it came to me. She had seen Cinderella several weeks before and wanted me to tell her the story over and over. Each time I told it a bit differently, but that day I had started from the beginning. In the beginning, Cinderella lived with her father because her mother had died, and soon after her father died as well, leaving her alone with her mean stepmother and stepsisters. I hadn’t realized how dark the older Disney movies were until I started watching them through a 3 year-old child’s eyes. Many of them feature a parent dying or a child being kidnapped. The newer ones seem positively sanitized in comparison. Was it a bad thing, I wondered, to expose her to death this young?

The next day I waited to see if she would raise the subject again. Instead she told me proudly “Mommy I heard you leave my room last night and I went to sleep all by myself and I didn’t even cry!” Ah toddlers.

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