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.

Ahhhhhhhhhhh bedtime

It was my turn to sit in the dark. Dave and I trade off who will sit in Maya’s room until she falls asleep and we can safely slip out. Tonight was my turn.

We have actually been quite fortunate with Maya’s sleep. Within a few months, Maya was mostly sleeping through the night. I’m guessing that sleep patterns are at least partly genetic and thankfully Maya inherited our sleep genes. We both LOVE sleep. A lot.

In the few months after she was born and before she started sleeping for long chunks at a time, we were up, as most parents are, every few hours. Dave was very sweet. Each time Maya would wake, he would get up, change her diaper, then pass her to me and I would nurse her back to sleep. He was working full time, but insisted on getting up each and every time she woke up.

Dave, however, does not function optimally without sleep. After several weeks of this it was wearing on him. He became, how shall I put this, a rather large grump. One night I suggested that he could sleep in the spare bedroom and get a full night’s sleep and I would take care of the nightly changing/feeding. He replied “Nope! I am her dad and it’s important to me that I support you. You shouldn’t have to do this alone.” What was I supposed to say to that?

The next time I offered, I added, gently, “But you know Dave, it is also supporting me if you get a good night’s sleep because you’ll feel better (i.e. not be so grumpy)” But he was insistent. And true to his word. Every single time she woke up, he would get up with her, change her, bring her back to me and go to sleep. I nursed her, in the dark, and counted the minutes it would take for her to fall back asleep again. Usually it was 20. It often felt like 20 hours.

She slept in a bassinet attached to our bed until she was almost 6 months old and the transition to her crib was seamless. We were able to put her to bed awake at nap times and she would put herself to sleep. “What amazing parents we are!” I thought. Ha! This all changed when she learned to stand. I have noticed that each time we think we have a handle on this parenting gig, Maya changes the rules. We adjust, develop a new strategy. Just when it is working and we’re feeling smug, she changes them again.

We, admittedly, did not follow the recommended strategies advanced in all of the sleeping books. Once asleep she slept so soundly that holding her in our arms until she dozed off didn’t feel like a chore. We both know that she will be our only child, and we are very aware that her childhood will be fleeting. So we submit to her pleas to hold her. When she was teething and woke in the night, Dave would take her into the basement and sleep with her, so as not to wake me. He would say “She’s my little baby and how much longer am I going to be able to hold her in my arms and cuddle with her like that?” We were often weepy in those moments… possibly from lack of sleep.

Now we’re at the stage where she can put herself to sleep again, but insists that we stay in her room with her. We still give her a bottle before bed (I’m sure that’s another huge no no), read her the same bedtime story, give her a snuggle, and put her in the crib. Then one of us leaves, the other turns off the light and tries to get her to go to sleep. She is a pro at prolonging the inevitable. We must tell her stories. She loves ones about when we were little, but doesn’t understand why I don’t know Dave’s childhood stories, nor he mine. She really loves the story about when she pooed all over Dave when she was a baby. Dave or I will tell her the story and she will laugh and say “That’s so funny! I pooed all over Daddy! I was laughing wasn’t I mommy! That’s so silly!”

Other nights we have to change that fact and focus on the poo on the walls as suddenly pooing on her Daddy makes her cry “I didn’t poo all over Daddy!” and I will respond “No you’re right, you just missed Daddy and the poo went all over the wall. Isn’t that funny?” It actually shot out like it was under enormous pressure when Dave was changing her diaper. Dave screamed a truly horrific scream and my mother, who was staying with us, thought Dave had dropped the baby. “No mom, don’t worry, Dave and the room are just covered in poo. Go back to sleep.”

Thankfully Maya has moved on from the poo story and now prefers to hear stories from our childhood vacations. Once those are done, she will find any number of ways to avoid sleep. I will tell her “Mommy is going to sleep now. You can talk to your toys but mommy will be asleep. I love you Maya. Have a good sleep” and she will reply “I love you too Mommy.” Then she will sing “Hallelujah” (KD Lang version) to her Pinky Bear, or, if I’m lucky, the chorus of Pokerface by Lady Gaga. There will be silence. Then she will make sure that the yucky painter guys and the yucky spray guy and Swiper won’t come in her room. If she hears a squeak of the chair she will say “Mommy don’t leave!”

After 10 minutes when I’m sure she is asleep and I am preparing for my escape I will hear a whispered “Mommy I love you.” My resolve to keep quiet and stay “asleep” will disappear and I will whisper “I love you too Maya. Now go to sleep please.” A few minutes later… “Mommy I need a towel.” “Why Maya?” “My hands are wet.” “Why are they wet?” “I put them in my mouth.” “Maya wipe them off and go to sleep please.” A few minutes later… “Mommy I have snotties. I need a Kleenex.” And so on, and so on, and so on.

Most of the time I am impressed by the amount of patience I have, although there are times when I feel like there is something inside me that is trying to escape my body and is pacing like a caged animal, preparing. Those are the nights that I am determined to end these ridiculous shenanigans right here and now! 

But there is order in our chaos! This is the preparation for the big girl bed and the big girl nighttime routine. This is how I have envisioned it in my mind. We will get her into her big girl bed, read her a story, tuck her in, kiss her good night and then LEAVE THE ROOM. It will be glorious! But, to tell you the truth, I’m not in a big rush. The nights I spend in her room, alone in the dark, are strangely meditative. I have come up with some amazing ideas in that dark room. And at no other time of the day do I get, out of the darkness, a whispered “Mom I love you!”

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