Giving children an understanding of death as healthy and natural is one of our most important jobs as parents and adults. After all, death is the source of all that we love.
Really? To many of us, conditioned by our Christian upbringing and culture (where death is the hated enemy), that sounds horrible. What justification could anyone have for loving the fact of death?
Well, what do we love? Our children? Our family? Our friends? Our experience of life – things like the woods, sunsets and rainbows? Our wider community of all life on Earth? Let’s look at those.
Children & Family
Children can only exist in a world with death. Without death, the number of any species of creature – humans included – could not go down. With children occurring (at any rate), the population would ratchet upwards, becoming unsustainable, and possibly explosive, as shown by the mantisplosion/mantis black hole horror story. This iron law of children = death is also shown in the evolution of complex multicellular animals, where the very concept of a “lifespan” arose due to children, more than a half a billion years ago.
Only with the concept of death does the concept of a lifespan – and hence the concept of children – even make sense. Of course, parents, sisters, brothers, etc. are all the result of children as well – whose child you are, what other children share your parents, etc. Family is, by definition, a result of children, and hence a result of death.
If we are talking about the love of our children or family, then one has to wonder why we “love” anything. What is “love”? Why do we “love”? It’s strange to even ask what “love” is – we all know already, and to try to describe it sounds stilted and silly. Love is the overwhelming feeling of value and care, of visceral attachment and affection felt for someone. Like consciousness itself, it’s hard to accurately describe, and even harder to understand. At the most basic level, at least, we (as a species) have a pretty good understanding of the physiological and chemical state of “love”. We can measure the increases in norepinephrine, nerve growth factor, serotonin, dopamine, and other chemicals in our brains, whether we are under their effects at the time or not. With some variation, these same compounds mediate similar feelings whether the external cause is a newborn baby or a new romantic partner, or other circumstances. This isn’t some response our “bodies” happen to have when their “souls” are in love – it’s what love physically is, and why it’s absurd to talk about ghosts falling in love (as if they have ghost seratonin in their ghost brains, made by ghost serotonin genes, etc.).
The Origin of Love
In fact, we know how dopamine and these other chemicals are made – both they and their receptor molecules are formed due to DNA. We can even pinpoint the sections of DNA (the genes) that code for them, such as the DRD1, DRD2, DRD3…. genes for the dopamine receptor molecules. That means that we know how they arose, because we know how genes arise – through the random mutations of DNA, often through random duplication and modification of the resulting duplicate gene, followed by selection to become established in the gene pool. Using our wider family tree of all life on earth, and seeing where the genes in question exist (and in what forms), it’s clear when and how each of these genes (and hence their products) evolved in time. Yes, we can see when and how love originated – in response to selective pressures, causing this or that genetic tweak to be copied a little more often. Think of what this means! Among many other realizations, it means that millions of years ago, there was no love on earth, in any form. It also means that it’s possible to destroy the possibility of any love in the future, if we make bad choices, among many other realizations.
Perhaps more directly relevant to this blog post, it means that love is a product of evolution – a physical ability – “feeling love by using chemicals”, just like flying by using wings, seeing by using eyes, or walking by using legs. In all these abilities, they were selected for (like any other trait) simply because they allowed more kids to survive. Some of the clear and early selective pressures that gave us love are clear – the protection of young, the finding of potential mates, and so on – all of which came long before humans. All of these selective pressures, and more, are the direct result of death. After all, without death, the entire idea of a “selective pressure” makes no sense, because a gene can’t be favored unless those without it are more likely to die. Like so many realities of our world, Carl Sagan has made this one clear as well – as he puts it, “The secrets of evolution are time and death“.
Our friends are the result of this unbroken thread, our evolutionary past, in several ways. Like all humans, they trace their Ancestry back into the common web of our human family, which shows that we are all connected to each other as family with common Ancestors only a few hundred or a few thousand years ago. In addition to their existence, our very need to have friends, to be able to make friends, to have a concept for what a “friend” is, are all the result of being a social animal – something that evolved gradually from the family unit at first, to the wider clan, to small groups, and so on (again, for adaptive reasons, of course).
The feelings of friendship, of joy and of fun use many of the same chemical pathways and transmitters discussed earlier, all again thanks to death. By now it should be clear that this holds for all experiences. The beauty of a sunset, the peace of a walk in the woods, the awe of totality, indeed, any fulfilling spiritual practice – all are the result of the brain each of us is, which was crafted by death, over billions of iterations, with billions of deaths. Yes, every time you love, every time to experience joy and wonder, every time you are alive – you are reaping the gifts of death, of the countless deaths that built our world. Our entire web of life is a gift that death gives us – the motivating factor behind all my actions (to help build a just, healthy and sustainable world), and that which I love deeply. Thank you, Death, for these gifts and many more.
Our society today still carries many of the values learned by our Christian past. Many of them are harmful, including our alienation of and hatred for the concept of death.
Among the many harms that the view of death as a supernatural, evil enemy are terror from a fear of an imaginary Hell, fear from children confusing sleep and death, insane amounts of money spent to keep blood pumping in a corpse and other denials of the reality of death, and many more. The pathological view of death most of us have been taught does damage all around us – too much for this post – and makes teaching a good understanding of death so much harder. That damage also makes the teaching of a healthy view of death very important in building a reality based, healthy society.
In the earlier post on teaching children about death, Kansas covered several important points. In teaching those, the additional ones mentioned above, basic family discussions (such as when a pet dies, hopefully before a relative dies), and more, the following resources could be useful.
- One of the best resources is the story “Tree Talks About Death“. As a story read to the child, the child is free to handle any emotions present without worrying about their response to you.
- Death is handled as part of a larger lesson on life in this 12 part Religious Education curriculum, “Remember Who You Are“. Parts of it can be used as part of the Death celebrations and lessons, or it can be used in a classroom.
- It takes only a small reminder to connect any Ancestor related activity to that of death and the gifts of death. Some great Ancestor resources include this guided Ancestor Meditation, Ancestor cards (we use these every year), and more here.
- Videos, such as the Unbroken Thread (above) and this song by Peter Mayer can help convey the wonder and joy of this wider understanding of Death.
- In preparing for these celebrations and discussions, several of these audio resources can help bring perspective and break us out of our cultural hatred of death. These include this presentation by Connie Barlow (and related videos – the first one is here, the rest are on this page), When Death gets Personal, and more.
- Much more can be found where many of these came from, which is this very useful trove of death resources by Connie Barlow and Michael Dowd, which includes videos, DVDs, songs, responsive readings, and other death related resources.
Regardless of which resources and events are used, it’s especially important to remember that teaching kids is not something that is done once. To learn that something is important, it has to come up and be reinforced over and over. One of the many good ways to make sure that this happens is to build it into a holiday as an important and constant part of that holiday. Samhain, of course, is an obvious choice – but Beltaine is a good choice too, as death and life are not opposites, but mutually reinforcing aspects of each other. This is yet another example of the usefulness of the symmetry of our Wheel of the Year, with Beltaine and Samhain representing aspects of the same idea, forming a line through the center of the Wheel, and also being celebrated at the same time on opposite (North/South) hemispheres.
Lastly, a healthy celebration of death can bring many benefits. In addition to solutions to the many problems caused by our culture’s dysfunctional hang up over death, our children can be prepared for when someone important in their life dies – which will happen sooner or later. If we prepare them, it can be a manageable time of grief instead of a life destroying, scarring trauma. Sometimes, it can be easier than we expect, perhaps because many of us have been raised in one way or another with the common dysfunctional view of death.
For instance, a few years ago it was Heather’s pregnancy that led to a discussion about death. My son Rowan, who was 4, on seeing mommy pregnant and having pregnancy explained to him, had decided that he was also pregnant! Just after the birth, here’s the discussion that happened, including his older brother (age 7 at the time).
Rowan: my babies haven’t come out yet.
Mommy: Rowan, I’m sorry but you don’t have babies in you – you can’t have babies growing in you because you aren’t a girl, and even girls have to be older than you.
Rowan: What will I be when I grow more?
Adair (age 7) “you’ll always be a boy. After you grow up some more you’ll be bigger like Kaedon.”
“and after that will I be bigger?”
Adair: “yeah, you’ll be bigger like Katie (a teenage friend).”
“and after that?”
“you’ll be as big as daddy.”
“and after that?”
“you’ll be older like grandpa.”
“and after that?”
“well, then you’ll die.” Adair says as if he were giving tomorrow’s weather report.
Rowan looks a little concerned, as if he’s considering whether or not an offer is a good deal or not………
Mommy: “Rowan, it’s OK. After you die your atoms will move out across the world, and be in trees, birds, and everything.”
Rowan: “(long, thoughtful pause)…… and … and (another long pause)… and ….dolphins?”
Mommy: “… yes. … and dolphins too.”
Rowan, relieved: ” OK!”
and he trots off to play……….
The Author: Jon Cleland Host
Starstuff, Contemplating: We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog at evolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.