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A child asks: What happens when you're done being dead?

One of the many magazines we subscribe to is the French magazine philosophie. One of the regular features is a section responding to reader questions and one of the columns within that section is questions d'enfance (childhood questions).  The November 2010 issue is a special about death and the child's question was on the topic of death (unfortunately the reader questions don't appear to be available in the online version). Here is the question and my loose translation of it:

Un jour, tu vas mourir, mais qu-est-ce que tu feras quand tu auras fini d'être mort? - Martin, 5 ans

[Translation] One day, you will die, but what happens when you are finished being dead? - Martin, 5 years

The question was answered by author and philosopher Pierre  Péju. In his answer, he talks about how difficult it is for humans to accept that being dead means no longer existing at all. He says that is why we often see and talk to our dead loved ones in our dreams -- because our desire to be with them makes them return. He talks about the different things that people believe happen when someone is done being dead, ranging from coming back as ghosts to responding to people's prayers to resurrection. He says that believing in resurrection can bring people a lot of comfort, just like we are comforted by the fact that Spring will arrive after Winter. But that if you don't believe that, there are other ways to diminish your grief.

I thought this next part of his answer was just beautiful, so for those who do understand French, I want to quote it directly, followed by my loose translation:

Lorsque quelqu'un est mort, tant qu'on pense á lui, tant qu'on revoit la façon dont il souriait ou marchait ou parlait, tant qu'on tient compte de ce qu'il a fait ou créé, on peut dire qu'il «n'a pas fini d'être vivant». Un «vrai» mort, c'est sans doute quelqu'un á qui plus personne ne pense sur toute la Terre. Personne pour s'en souvenir. Son nom effacé. C'est terrible, mais ça finit par arriver. C'est pourquoi l'important n'est pas de «finir d'être mort», mais de faire que ceux qui sont en vie comme ceux qui ont disparu n'en finissent pas d'être vivants».

[Translation] When someone dies, as we think of him, think of the way he smiled or walked or talked, as we remember what he did or created, we can say that he "has not finished living." A "real" death is, without a doubt, someone who no one on earth thinks about anymore. No one to remember. His name is erased. It is terrible, but it happens. That is why the important thing isn't to "finish being dead", but instead to ensure that those who are alive and those who have disappeared continue to live on.

His response is simple and beautiful. To me, it is both something I could say to my children as I address their questions about death and also a good reminder of how important it is to remember those who have passed, whether that is a baby or child who died too soon, a person who died alone and whose story deserves to be remembered, or a cherished elderly relative who inhabits our fondest memories.

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Reader Comments (14)

wow - beautifully said

November 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDevan @ Accustomed Chaos

Death questions have been kind of tough in our house; we're both agnostics from religious families, and have never heard adults deal with these ideas in a non-religious manner. We've read books, but of course they never cover all the situations.

It did help to tell our (5 yr old) son that when you die, your brain stops working and your body turns into dirt, and so you stay part of the world. We've also been down the "but Mema who died was very old and sick." His logical response was "Well I'M not gonna get old or sick!" And we just let that go with an "ok." And he doesn't want us to die either, of course. He was very worried for a while, but lately seemed to have let it go.

It is SO hard not to have the things we were told, about Heaven and about an afterlife, to comfort him, but we don't want to say we have a certainty that we don't. He hasn't really brought up Heaven, I don't think he really understands the concept yet and we don't bring it up.

He's been unfortunate enough to lose a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a cat in one year, so we're hoping that the next few years give us all a breather :(

November 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteremjaybee

It's interesting that what you tell your son as an agnostic is almost the same as what I tell my daughter as a Christian. The Bible actually says about when a person dies, "he goes back to the ground; in that day his thoughts do perish", and Ecclesiastes chapter 9 discusses in great detail the state of the dead. (no thoughts, body decomposes, back to the earth from which man was made). The difference is that I also can tell her about a hope for the dead that involves them being remembered by the Creator and brought back to life in paradise, just the way that we remembered them but healthy.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSara

French philosophers and 3.5 year olds
“No Mummy, they haven’t passed. They’re dead. But we can remember them, and we can think about them, and we keep it here in our hearts.”

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTepary

The death discussion is incredible painful, isn't it? As parents, we want to offer our children a world of safety and predictability--the only predictable thing about death is that it will come.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Drury

We've had a lot of conversations about death because my mother passed away last February. Sometimes I'll overhear my daughters talking to each other about it, and I'm amused at the range of drama and practicality around the subject. For me it has been really important to express that we don't know, really, what happens. Funny, I'll make up stories about Santa and the Tooth Fairy, but on this topic I feel compelled to truthful and bring it back to their own actions: We keep Grammy's memory alive in our hearts, that's the thing we do know.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMDTaz

This is a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing this...for those of us who understand some French the answer is even more poignant.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLorette Lavine

[...] A child asks: What happens when you’re done being dead?. [...]

I've told my children that we are all filled with and connected by energy - everyone, everything -the plants, the animals, people. We die because our bodies have worn out & aren't able to function any longer, but our energy is still alive, even once our body has died. Our energy passes along, nurturing the earth & the universe. They understand death & energy transfer from planting and tending our gardens and seeing the cycle of life & death & rebirth with the seasons. My daughter has surmised that energy after death may be reborn in a new body, and I say that very well could be. It is natural for them to see themselves as a part of the earth - we get our energy from the earth - it seems to them to just make sense we return to it - like the plants and animals we share our lives with.
We talk about remembering people & animals who have lived, but who are no longer living; what they contributed, how we remember them. We've talked about being thankful for the time we have & making the best of every moment because the most important time is right now.
It's an evolving conversation, and I'm not always certain but I know the cycle of life is
wonderous, nature is amazing, it is tangible and understood by children, so I borrow much from
Mother Nature when we talk of life & death.
Thank you for this thoughtful post.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Wow, this is a great response to an extremely touchy and difficult question. Fortunately so far (knock on wood), its something I haven't experienced dealing with yet. But this gives a good outline on a response.

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristen Simmons

Oh my goodness, that is lovely and beautiful... Thanks you so much for sharing that quote. I don't look forward to having to explain death to my kids, but am glad I'll have this sentiment to help in doing so.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

We've been talking about death lately too. My father in law has lymphoma and so I've been trying to gently introduce the idea of death to my 4 year old before we have to deal with a real death in the family. When we began talking about it, he got most upset when we told him that you don't come back to life after you die, that you stay in the ground. He kept asking, but what happens AFTER you die? He wasn't satisfied with all the details about funerals and such. He couldn't fathom that nothing happens after you die. Like the commenter above, I too think it's important to say that we just don't know what happens after we die, and we've explained that different people believe different things. When we told him about reincarnation, he was comforted by that thought, that he can come back, and he wants to come back as himself. For now, if that comforts him, I'm ok with him believing that. And we've also told him, much like the answer in the magazine, that people don't really die as long as we remember them, that they live on in our hearts and memories. That we will continue to talk about them and look at pictures of them and think about them and that means that they are still with us. We hope that will comfort him when we have to deal with the death of someone close to us. I also wanted to add that we found some books at the library for kids that present the idea of death in a way that makes it easier to talk about. Kids don't associate all the things with death that we do, and it helps them when we can talk about it in a simple, factual way. Thanks for your post.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

So beautiful. I've thought a lot even before my son was born about how I will address the question he will likely ask one day about where my mother is. She died 15 years ago. And once he learns that my mother died, won't he see that his own mother could (will) die? And his father? And so on. Thank you for sharing this quotation.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

[...] bit on this blog about the things I want to teach my children about sex, love, tolerance, religion, death, war, history, food, consumerism, feminism, empathy and more. So often it seems they are so busy [...]

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