As adults all of us want to believe we have done a commendable job educating our young either as parents, schoolteachers priests or ministers. If the child does not fall into the accepted behavior mode of society, we tend to judge the job we did as a failure. This parental self-evaluation occurred in me when, recently, my twenty-seven year old daughter, Diane, pointed out that I had neglected an important part of her childhood education.
When I asked her what I had failed to teach her, she told me the following. “Mom, you were open with us about most everything. You taught my sister and me about sex and loving ourselves. You taught us that we are responsible for our own actions. You taught us not to lie even to ourselves. You taught us about the harm drugs and alcohol does to our bodies. But, the one thing you never taught us was about death.”
Diane went on to say. “When I was ten-years old and Grandpa died, I didn’t understand what that really meant. When I asked you or other people what happens to people when they die, I got the normal pat answer that ‘you go to heaven to be with God’. This only confused me because when I was at the funeral home where Grandpa was laid out, I saw and talked to him and he wasn’t in the casket. After the funeral he came home with me (a thousand miles away) and I could see him in my room and other places. When I wouldn’t do my homework he would scold me.”
Diane went on to explain. “When I was sixteen, I drove to a friend’s house in a nearby mountain town. When my friend met me at the car, he turned white and asked who the man was in the back seat. I knew who it was because I had seen him in the rear view mirror on my way up the mountain, but I didn’t know other people could see him. Later I talked to Grandpa and told him to quit scaring my friends. From that time on he never came around when I was with friends who might be frightened.”
“You see, Mom, if my friends and I could see and talk to Grandpa and he is dead and in heaven, where is heaven?”
Diane’s confession about her experiences with death in her early childhood has caused me to wonder if all children have similar incidents happen in their lives that result in confusion. Are we, as parents and teachers, neglecting an important lesson for our young by not explaining what death really is? Could our vague heaven explanation be creating a similar confusion as what, “the stork brings babies,” did for sex? As I was contemplating these questions, it dawned on me. How can we explain something we don’t understand ourselves?
Hollywood has helped to promote the fear of death by portraying a deceased person who has been “good” in their life shown as an angel, where as one who has been “bad” is shown as a miserable demon whose eternal destination is hell. Think of how frightening this must seem to a child who did not eat all of his spinach. This portrayal would also add to the confusement of someone that actually sees and talks to the deceased person who doesn’t look like a Hollywood angel or a demon.
The churches create a similar fear especially in children by teaching salvation only comes by begging for forgiveness from a judgmental God on a throne who sees everything they do and hears every word they speak. Does not our Santa Claus myth parallel this belief? If you are “good”, you will receive presents. If you are “bad” you will receive only a lump of coal.
It is a scientific fact that most of our beliefs about the world and ourselves are basically set in place by the time we reach puberty. It is no wonder many teenagers have a fatalistic attitude toward life if during childhood they have been continuously reminded of the consequences of their wrongdoing or sins. A child perceives things very literal so that by the time he is a teenager he often feels that he is doomed to hell by God, the Pope, the ministers, his parents, the court judge or even Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
Unfortunately, this fear of what happens to us when we die does not suddenly leave us, as we become adults. We only learn to rationalize it as adults. It is still, at a deep level, very present. It can and does affect the way we live our life. In my therapy and counseling practice, I have been shocked with the effect this fear, which develops during childhood, has on people later in their lives. Some of the saddest cases are parents who are tormented by the loss of a child to death. Often they blame themselves because they believe that God is punishing them for something they had done “wrong” by taking their child from them. They become crippled with guilt or as society puts it, dysfunctional. In other cases they are so overwhelmed with the fear of death that they surrender all decisions in their life to a scapegoat, often a religious authority who they feel certain knows the true path to heaven. They, too, become crippled for they become codependent with their scapegoat.
What is the antibiotic cure for this crippling disease? After hundreds of cases, I have determined that probably we need to be taught love of life as well as love of death, instead of fearing both beginning from the time we are born. When we understand death as only a transitional step on the eternal ladder and nothing to be feared even if we do not eat our spinach, we will allow ourselves to enjoy a lifetime of peace and happiness.
As far as what the antidote is for those who have already been poisoned with fear, it can vary even though the essential component of this antidote is always unconditional love. The administration of the antidote is where the differences lie.
So when your children come to you and ask, “Now that Grandpa is dead, where does he go?” we would suggest you give it some thought, remembering most children have that interdimentional sight. They can see spirits, often called their imaginary friends. If you want them to believe in angels, I have no problem with that. I only ask that you take the explanation a step further. Children are quite bright and perceptive. When explained to them in a non-fearful way, they do understand the eternal circle of life and death. The question is can we, as adults, understand that this eternal cycle of the soul means there is no beginning or end?
I feel that the fear of death is the common element of all our fears. If we dispel of it, through better understanding of death, all our other fears will find no fertile ground in which to root. When we are not afraid to die, we are not afraid to live.