What happens when we die? Explaining death to your child

When thinking about death we have so many questions and very few answers. It’s where the fear and disbelief stem from. Children are renown for saying exactly, and frankly, what’s on their minds. They also have questions which we can find hard to answer, especially when our grief is so raw and we feel lost in our own cloud of uncertainty.

Three years on my children still ask about Abi’s death occasionally. They think about death and heaven, and what it means to die. Part of them is anxious about this, another part very accepting. They have very normal and understandable feelings about death, just like we do, and we take their questions seriously.

My children know what happened to Abi. And while they do worry about death more now, they accept that her brain haemorrhage was a unique illness for her and is unlikely to happen to them.

In the early days, when they were 5 and 10, we kept them sensitively involved in Abi’s death and memorials. We didn’t hide from them what was happening and kept an open dialogue about it all. This we feel has helped them immensely to adjust to life without their big sister. They also fully believe in God and that Abi is in heaven, and again, we haven’t romanticised this to them. She’s not turned into an angel or a star or a bird. She is in heaven waiting for us to one day join her and to live again in a world without pain or suffering.

Yet still the questions come. And I love it!

I love that they always ask why. That their questions mean that they are really trying to understand this life, this world and our purpose. They are inquisitive and will not be ‘won over’ by empty phrases or ‘just because’. And Jesus made it quite clear that us adults can learn a great deal from children, whose minds are open and willing to accept that which they can’t see.

Born into death
So what is it like to die? This can be hard to explain. Often we associate the moment of death with immense pain, fear and distress. Yes, of course, some people do go into death in horrible circumstances, but it’s not the norm it seems. I’ve known people who suffered terribly leading up to their deaths, it was heartbreaking to watch as illness robbed them of life, yet, I’m told by their families that their passing was ‘blessed’, ‘peaceful’, ‘calm’. Abi’s death too, was almost ‘serene’ – it wasn’t the terrified gasping for breath or clinging in fear, it was a genuine sense of her ‘passing on’.

As I write this I am seven months pregnant with our fifth child. She is growing stronger every week and is practising using her limbs. Up to now, she knows only the safe, dark, watery space of my womb. She can hear the muffled sounds of my voice. She is unconscious, unaware of anything other than her instinctive desire to stretch out and suck or swallow.

When she is born, she will be forced out into air on her skin, the urge to breathe, feeling hands holding her, a feeling of falling into nothing, loud noises, smells, seeing people and objects and lights, her memories begin to form… in an instant her entire world has changed. Yet she won’t yet know what it is to be afraid. She will also quickly feel loved and safe, as she is cuddled and fed.

And when I think that, apart from our birth, our death is the only other mind- and world-altering event in our lives, it can only be the same.

My other children chatter to my tummy, and they excitedly tell the baby they are looking forward to meeting her and all the things she will get to do when she’s born. The ‘good news’ is that this is a wonderful life she is coming into and that there is no need to be afraid. We don’t often say anything terrible about a new baby being brought into the world.

So perhaps death is like birth? We transfer from one type of existence to another. In pregnancy it’s predominantly our bodies that are being created, during life we develop our minds and our bodies enable us to do things. In death, we don’t need our bodies anymore but we take our minds (souls) with us to the next place. In labour, we feel the pressure and pass through a point of unspeakable pain as our baby arrives, yet, in an instant, that pain is gone and is replaced with love, relief and joy.

I imagine that the ‘next place’ is even more wonderful that the womb, even more wonderful than the earth, because we seem to move onwards and upwards to our eternal life.

The metamorphosis of life and death
My theme of dragonflies also builds on this concept. Of metamorphosing into something even better. I read recently, too, that butterflies go through an amazing transformation. They start off as a caterpillar, they grow and have a bit of a life busy munching leaves, then they wrap themselves in a cocoon. Inside this cocoon they, essentially, dissolve and then reform into what will emerge as a butterfly. When the time is right, they break free from their dark case and fly out into the light of the world, not as a ‘crawling grub’ but as a beautiful fluttering winged insect with colours and patterns, with much more freedom than it once had.

It’s perhaps why many people associate butterflies with a lost loved one. We see them often and they can appear in the most unlikely of places. A friend found a large unusual butterfly in her fireplace the night her husband died in the early winter. It made such a noise, she was startled by it when it fluttered out. It then landed on a picture of quotes in the room and settled for two days on the words ‘You are loved’. I made her the pebble below, to remind her of this.

The Bible tells us that eternal life is ours and will be perfect. I see no reason not to believe this. The clues are all around us.

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6 thoughts on “What happens when we die? Explaining death to your child

  1. I’m so lost without my little boy, I feel completely dead inside. How did you find the strength to go on? I really don’t think I can do this anymore

    1. Oh Carol, it’s heartbreaking. I’m so sorry. I didn’t find the strength… I guess it found me, eventually. Read some of my early posts. I felt the same. When I think of her now I just want to be with her, even though I have so much to live for. You do too. Please email me your story if you like. It helps to share that utter despair and I’d love to hear about him. Much love to you x

  2. My son died so many years ago and butterflies are definitely something that remind me of him. I am a songwriter and have used the butterfly concept in so many of my songs. I see how you are reaching out and helping other bereaved people – despite suffering from terrible grief. We are part of such an awful community and survival is unbelievable when it happens. Somehow we go on and it’s a good thing you are writing and sharing.
    I recorded a one of my songs (with butterfly) just last week. I share a link here: https://judyunger.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/every-season-mix-acoustic-2-20-16-mix-13.mp3
    If it comforts you – then I am blessed. The story for it is at this link: http://myjourneysinsight.com/2011/05/08/274-every-season-you-come-back-to-me/
    Sending you healing thoughts.

    1. Thank you so much Judy. That is a deeply moving song! The ‘every season you come back to me’ is just right. You capture a mother’s grief so well. Thank you too for using your gifts to help people like me xxx (and he was a beautiful boy!)

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