Death & Disney
I don’t know how to talk to my daughter about death.
Currently, she is three and obsessed with the topic. I blame Disney. Anna and Elsa’s parents in “Frozen”? Dead in a shipwreck. In “Moana”, the grandmother passes away. And in her favorite movie, “Tarzan”, a cheetah kills both a baby gorilla and Tarzan’s parents in the first five minutes of the film. Really, Disney?
While it’s true that she doesn’t really understand death, she is very concerned about her own mortality, frequently telling me that she doesn’t want to die.
I’m struggling with what to tell her. We assure her that most people die when they are old and sick. We explain that she is young and healthy. We talk a lot about the Circle of Life (thanks for that song, Disney!)
My problem is my lack of religion, or rather my background as a history teacher.
I have always been a passionate student of history. I majored in history in college and went on to teach middle and high school history for eight years. During that time, my focus was on ancient and medieval history, which included teaching about the development of the world religions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam.
It’s hard to study history without being very disillusioned by religion.
The author Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes, “Generally speaking beliefs arise from an event or character that may or may not be authentic and rapidly evolve into social movements that are conditioned and shaped by the political, economic, and societal circumstances of the group that accepts them.”
So essentially, a figure like Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad comes along and shares ideas that morph into an organized religion. This new religion takes form based on what is happening in society at the time. It’s very hard for me to look at Christianity and not think about the Roman Emperor Constantine and how he used the symbol of the cross to conquer Rome. Was he a genuine convert? Perhaps, but he also used Christianity to his advantage.
Zafon writes, “Poetry aside, a religion is really a moral code that is expressed through legends, myths, or any type of literary device in order to establish a system of beliefs, values, and rules with which to regulate a culture or society.” Boom.
An Indian emperor, Ashoka the Great, attempted to use Buddhism to unite and rule his kingdom. Muhammad was able to use his teachings to unite the Arab peninsula under Islam. Charlemagne attempted to rebuild the Roman Empire under the sign of the cross.
Over and over again, religion has been used to conquer, subjugate and rule people. It also bring communities together. And religion gives great answers about death.
The historian Will Durant once wrote “Death is the origin of all religions, and perhaps if there had been no death there would have been no gods.”
This quote made a huge impact on me. Would religions exist if people were not curious about or scared of what happens after death? Does religion provide the comfort needed to accept dying?
I have realized that it would be easier in a lot of ways if I did believe in God and Heaven. It would certainly make explaining death to my daughter easier.
I have fallen back on saying that even when people die, they will always be with us because we carry their memories in our hearts and our minds. I’ve vaguely talked about how we reunite with our loved ones after death, but it feels hypocritical to tell her about Heaven when I don’t believe in it.
My nephew is around the same age as my daughter and also curious about death, but he comes from a more religious background where he prays before meals and knows about God and Jesus. My in-laws are able to explain Heaven to him, an explanation that is driven by their faith.
I envy them their belief.
Parents Magazine addressed this very issue, stating that children under five find the concept of a soul living on to be too abstract (whew!) and that nonreligious people can allow children to figure out what afterlife is for them. The article says, “Say something like, ‘No one knows for sure. Some people think you go to heaven when you die, while others believe people come back on earth as different creatures. What do you think?’”
The article includes other tips: answer their questions directly, use metaphors they will understand, explain that adults get sad too, help them to memorialize and remember the loved one, whether a family member or a pet.
My daughter is lucky enough not to have faced death directly yet, despite her curiosity and questions. I do not plan to shield her from it when it does happen. I will keep answering her questions to the best of my ability.
I also plan to seek out resources to teach her about a wide variety of beliefs. If she is drawn to a particular faith, I will absolutely encourage her. It’s important to me that she learns to respect all the religions of the world and to find what works for her spiritually. I’m happy to take her to religious services and share books with her on all faiths.
I want to allow her to ask questions and work to figure out the answers for herself.
I want her to develop the morals and ethics that come with religion. I want her to feel the sense of community that people of faith do. Most importantly, I want her to be able to talk to me about what she’s feeling. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable talking to me about religion and spirituality, so I know that no matter how awkward and hypocritical I may feel, silence is never the appropriate answer.
A new study from the University of Buffalo analyzed dozens of Disney and Pixar films that feature death and concluded that these movies are important because they allow opportunities for children to ask questions about death and to engage in conversations with adults on the topic. This allows for death to be less of a taboo topic and for children to “explore their emotional response to death better.”
I may not have the religious answers, but I’ll always have Disney.