How I Explained Death To My Daughter
On my daughter's third birthday, she asked me what happens after you die. (Now you're probably wondering how the heck we celebrate birthdays around here, but don't worry, we do plenty of life affirming activities such as cake-eating and present-opening – very much like normal people, in fact.) The question came up because I had been reading her a book about a little girl with a sick father and an older woman whose husband had passed away and how the neighborhood children were taking care of them.
The story was meant to teach kids the importance of helping out friends in tough times, but apparently my daughter took the concept of "sick father" and "dead husband" and considered the fact that there could be a "dead father" too. Which led her to tell me quite matter-of-factly, "But my Daddy will never die."
Now my daughter is what you might call a daddy's girl, but using such a term is actually insufficient to express the deep love and connection this child feels for her father. While she has acknowledged sentiments of love and contentment in my being her mother, to my daughter, Daddy is the sun, the moon, and pretty much everything that is great in this world.
So when she told me that her daddy would never die, I didn't want to upset her, but I also thought that lying wasn't exactly the right approach either. (Falsely confirming her father's immortality would certainly catch up with me at some point in the future.) I explained to her that G-d willing, it wouldn't happen for a very, very, very long time, but because everyone in this world eventually dies, her daddy would too. (Great birthday present, no?)
She looked a little bit upset and then asked me what happens after you die. I told her that we leave this world and are with Hashem (which literally means "the Name", but is colloquially the way observant Jews refer to G-d). She looked down at the Polly Pocket doll on the table (her newest and greatest birthday present) and wanted to know if she could bring it along with her to the hereafter.
I wondered to myself how many times could I disappoint this poor child on her birthday, but again being that I wanted to be straight with her, I explained that little Polly would not be eligible for the trip. Well that was it. I had really done it because by this point she was looking quite upset, so I told her to come close, and I put my arms around her. I explained to her that the feeling she gets inside when Mommy hugs her, how she feels safe, and warm, and protected. That's how it would feel after she died.
And then my three year old daughter looked up at me with her big eyes and asked, "So, Mommy, when I die Hashem will hold me?" And I told her, "yes, baby, Hashem will hold you." And that was it. She was fine. No more worrying, no more concern, no more mention of it in nearly two years since that conversation has passed.
When I thought about our talk, after the fact, I realized how deep the message in it was. We all will die eventually, and no matter how attached we've gotten to physical stuff we've collected in this world, none of it will come with us. All that will be in the end is a realm of spirituality and transcendence, and hopefully closeness to Hashem.