There was a time several years ago, when I used to read out to my little one, perched up on my lap, all cozy and warm. During the long story reading sessions, we would break for impromptu discussions, once in a while when we would discuss the most random things under the Sun, before resuming again.
One day, while we were reading the Jataka Tales, my little one was a little quieter than usual. He kept listening to the stories, but did not ask me any questions. I noticed something was bothering him. After a while, I sat him down next to me and finally asked him the reason for his quietness.
After some initial hesitation, he replied,
“I was thinking —why do people die?”
“Hmm. So this is what is bothering you,” I said. I knew I had to put him at ease with his thoughts but it was hard to explain the concept of death to a child. I thought for a moment and then, said,
“You know, there is something common about everything we see in this world, and that is— everything changes. The law of nature says that all living beings that are born must die. Me, you, our families, our friends, our plants and trees and the animals around. Everything must come to that state we call death.”
His next question was,
“Does it hurt a lot when we die?”
I hugged him tight and kissed his forehead. I had no answer to be honest, but I made the bravest face that I could and told him,
“No, it doesn’t.”
And, then, for some reason, I veered him away from that topic to something else and the topic was forgotten. Over the years we never spoke about it again.
Last week, we came upon this topic again by chance. The news of yet another teenager killing himself over the notorious Blue Whale challenge has been sending shockwaves around the country. As a mother of a teen, I know my apprehensions are not unfounded. I’ve always kept the lines of communication open with Arjyo knowing how trying things can be when you’re caught in a limbo between childhood and adulthood. After his evening snack, we got down to talking about how his day went. We spoke on all and sundry until we came upon the topic of death and how everything we are connected to, is only short-lived. The mood and tone of our chat suddenly turned solemn. I decided to tell him a story again, reminiscent of the early years. Maybe, I was missing those story-telling days more than he did.
I narrated the story of the Buddha and how one day a woman with a dead baby came to him asking him to bring the child back to life. The Enlightened One, of course, would not give sermons. So, he sent her to go looking for a mustard seed instead, which alone could save the child’s life, but on one condition—it should come only from a house where death had not touched anyone. Over time, and after a couple of visits, the woman realised that there was not a single household where death had not visited even once. She came to the realisation that her only way forward was to accept that death was inevitable in everyone’s life. The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have already seen it! She said to her son,
“Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground, uttering the following words.
“No village law, no law of market town, No law of a single house is this—
Of all the world and all the worlds of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.”
Arjyo listened to the story with a maturity that was well beyond his years and a vulnerability that was a sign of his young mind trying to come to terms with the concept of loss and impermanence. Never an easy topic to discuss with your teen, mind you. Knowing that he was on the verge of that uneasy stage in life when emotional turmoils run high, I said,
“Everything in this world is temporary— me and you and everyone we know. But should that stop us from living life? NO. Even our favourite things are here today, gone tomorrow….and so are all our lovely moments of happiness and so are the hard times and the painful things that we find difficult to endure. So, if you are happy, enjoy the moment because it is short-lived and if you are sad, know that this too shall pass soon.”
He has always been a child with a certain philosophical bent of mind and he has always been a quick observer of things around. While he confessed the other day how that chat of ours made him sad, he also acknowledged the fact that it made him wise enough to understand that this was a “fact of life.”
I recalled how I had stumbled upon this profound truth in my Philosophy class in college—one of the foremost teachings in Buddhism that says everything in life is impermanent. Buddhism’s main concern has always been freedom from pain and the path to that ultimate freedom consists in ethical action and in direct insight into the nature of “things as they truly are”.
According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is like a river. It is a successive series of moments, joining together to give the impression of one continuous flow. But in reality, it moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another.
So, what makes this knowledge relevant to us?
Perhaps the fact that our inclination to cling to things we are attached to is one of the major reasons for our suffering. When we are aware of the ever-changing nature of reality and appreciate the present moment we are able to accept that nothing will stay with us forever, that all things including our moments of happiness and pain are ephemeral.
The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. It changes continuously from moment to moment. Everything we see around us is there only for a moment. In the very next, something will change and so will our life. The only way to align our lives with this reality is to accept the impermanence of life and make the most of living in the moment.
As an adult I feel why Death is inevitable then I can understand how difficult it must be for a child.
So true, Mahek. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Deep and profound! Your interaction around death with your son made me question how easy is it for me to accept death in my mind? It is the ultimate inevitability of life but we don’t discuss it and think about it. I bought the book – ‘The book of dying’ in order to get insights. In 2015, I had written a post on the death question posed by D to my father where he wanted to know where do people go after dying. I wondered how come he skipped the first question about why do people die to jump to the next about where do people go. He didn’t find Papa’s answers convincing. Upar chale jaate hain, kahan upar? And then one reader commented what her granny had told her – people upon dying set off on another interesting journey of life at a new place with a new name and new role. And this is the ultimate truth. Over the years I have stuck to this with D and he has accepted this. Recently, he has been asking for a pet dog and I showed him a movie Hachi about a dog whose master died and the dog kept waiting at the train station for 9 years for his master to return in the evening as he used to do while he was alive. At the end, the dog died of old age. It was grossly unsettling for D and I felt it cruel to show him such a movie at an early age. I discussed having a pet dog is not all about playing with it but there is heartache involved in it.
Oh, I looooove this response of yours, Anamika! 🙂
You know, Anamika, everyone has a different response to this difficult question on death. I love the response that you mentioned too. Its a beautiful way to signify what is actually true, i.e., setting on a new journey after this life! I’m amazed how even grown-ups want to escape from this question about death…it is baffling no doubt to people of all ages!
What you siad about pets is very true. I know that from the experiences of people who own pets and go through that heartache. Its hard for a child to cope with that kind of loss, so i understand your reservations!
What a beautiful conversation to have with a growing child… reflects your level of maturity and ofcourse Arjoy’s to too be able to process it. Yours is one of my Most favourite blog and I eagerly look forward to reading your insights and guidances.
Much love to you and Arjoy. Big hugs and yes more power to you beautiful Esha. ❤️
Thanks Natasha. I’m deeply honoured to read your beautiful comments about my blog. Thank you so much for showering this love! To someone who suffers from serious self-doubts wrt blogging this is life-affirming, trust me! I feel purged off my pent up thoughts when I blog and even though I love to express myself through writing I know I have a long way to go before I’ve learnt anything significant to call myself a writer. I love my regular interactions with my son, Arjyo. His mind is very curious and sensitive and the fact that he is growing up way too fast makes me yearn for those childhood days when he was a little boy and used to curl up with a book next to me or pester me to read out to him every now and then. Hugs right back to you too Natasha. Thanks ever so much dear. 🙂
Children understand a lot more than we give them credit for. I think conversations like the one you had with your son, should be more commonplace in our household. Death is a part of life, and children grasp that a lot more intuitively than adults.
Oh, they do! Absolutely! I’ve always enjoyed the chats with my boy every since he was little and every single heartbreak used to make him ponder on the things we grown-ups consider philosophical! I’ve never hidden or sugar-coated the bitter truths about life’s realities! I hope I did the right thing.
I think it is very important to talk to children, especially in that teenager phase. It’s a confusing time, I know, having been through such a time, and also seeing some of my friends who are parents to teens. It’s nice to know that you do, and that you are honest and kind too. 🙂
Loved the story of the Buddha as well, Esha. Thank you for this post. I will return to read it again, I’m sure.
I cannot agree more, Vinay! Keeping the lines of communication open and regularly letting the teens share their thoughts and experiences is a must…things are now very different than it was when we were growing up! I’m trying to do my best as a parent, and it is isn’t easy because emotions run very high and the times are really challenging in every sense of the word.
Thanks again for your appreciation. Hope to see you here again. 🙂
Esha, living in the present moment and giving it our hundred percent is the way to go. Love the way you explained life and death to your son, commendable. My mom always says don’t be too happy when things go your way and also don’t be too sad when they don’t. It is a passing phase. ‘Life is like a river’, true that.
Thank you so much, Sulekha! I like what your mom says. So much truth and wisdom in those words! It’s true…comfort comes from knowing that everything will pass alike—the good as well as the bad!
This was such a beautiful post, Esha! My eyes welled up as I read the conversation between you and your little one.
Accepting the ever-changing nature of life can be rather difficult on young minds, but it’s better to be truthful however much hard certain realities may be for them to accept.
Thanks a ton Shilpa for your wonderful words of appreciation! You’re right, life is like a roller coaster ride for the teens and accepting life’s bitter truths can only make it worse but I feel being honest always works better, as it keeps them prepared to face life as it comes. Or so we hope!
Being a parent is a tough call and everyday, I’m learning.
I loved reading this. Such a beautiful moment. Keeping communication open always and keeping a cool head is needed to be a teenagers’ mom.
Thanks a lot, Lata! True, we can only do our best as parents and hope things will fall into place! Keeping cool is my new challenge every day! 😀
I love the story telling the best in this post though discussing the topic of death with a child is just too sad for me to deal with. Its really brave of you as a parent to even attempt it; I am super duper in awe of your maturity for this!! Seems your level of maturity is passed on down to your son – big hug to him.
This is such a beautiful post. As a caregiver for an 89 year old woman I have known for some 47 years, I know nothing is permanent – I love the parable of the mustard seed. But none of us want to talk about death, including the fact that she has increasing health problems. In a way, that must be so lonely. And my brother inlaw, who has autism, must face this in his own way.
This post is, for lack of a better word, brilliant Esha. I find it really hard to talk about death. It scares me to the point of not trying to talk about it or completely ignoring it. I needed to read this.
Thank you so much, Nabanita. Death is a difficult topic but one that kids always come up with every now and then whenever their little minds find it hard to grasp the truth. As a parent, I’ve learnt over the years how we have to answer their every query with honesty. It can be tough because some of them are answers which are only relative to the life you’ve lived but you don’t want them to give it out to them like that. You’d rather they figure it out on their own. Deciding which ones to leave out is what I’m trying to learn now.
It’s great to read that you had great interaction with the little one. Right way to communicate, Esha
Thanks, Arvind. Keeping our interactions open always helps when you have a teen who comes up with a barrage of questions every now and then. For some you have answers to and for some you don’t!
Certainly Esha. These days teens are quite logical and are always looking for logical answers.
Another beautiful thought provoking post from you Esha. Teenagers are suddenly aware of the impermanence of life and ask the most difficult questions to answer. The story of the Buddha is a beautiful illustration of the concept of death and how no one is immune from it.
Thank you so much, Sunita. I am ready for the tough questions that are coming now and some of them are baffling to the core but as a parent, I know I cannot duck, so answer I must. Doing my bit as a parent and the best that I can do. Hope it works!
Love this post, Esha and even more the fact that you have such thoughtful conversations with your son. He will sure grow up to be a sensible person like you are. Life is all about changes and the sooner we accept this, the better it will be. Fantastic post.
Thank you so much, Parul. I’m glad too that we can have these conversations so that he can make sense of this world and the context within which we live our lives, in his own way. I always keep the conversations open-ended so we can always come back to clarify and question more and more.
Talking about death is very hard for me even now. To explain the complexity of emotions to a kid must be more tough. I absolutely loved the way you answered your boy. So maturely yet with enough sensitivity for a child to understand and not feel too distraught. This is a beautiful post. An example for all the parents out there.
Thanks for your kind words, Rajlakshmi. It has not been easy to talk about these concepts to kids! As parents we try our best. Never sure how it goes down with them. I’m hoping I’m doing all the right things for my son.
I love this post so much Esha! Life truly is impermanent which is why we need to make the best of it and fill it with meaning. It’s great that you can have such wonderful conversations with your son. I’m sure he’ll grow up to be a thinking young man 🙂
Thanks Sanch. You know I saw your post and thought I had to write on this. Been there on my mind for a while. Yes, we both have these very philosophical chats every now and then since he was little. Thx again for the wishes Sanch! 🙂