When my four year old child asked me "what does 'dead' mean?", I couldn't be too cold and blunt, and couldn't say anything about heaven as I'm an atheist. So I said "it's when things turn into compost, just like in the garden".
After saying it, I actually felt a kind of calm come over me, as life somehow made more sense to me. I'm seeing 'death' every day in the garden, and never feel upset about it as I see it as part of the natural system we're all part of. To fear my own mortality seems absurd fro. That point.
I tried many spiritual paths in my life, but gardening (and probably age) has given me the nicest feeling. That all organic things in a normal natural world turn into compost.
That's a hard question. Our culture is so pitiful at dealing with death and terminal illness. When my first parent was terminally ill it was traumatizing, and I didn't know what to do to help. The medical community, oddly enough, wasn't much help either. I think they were too afraid of being sued, so they were full of generalities, yet they knew the specifics but wouldn't say them. By the time our 4th parent died I knew the ropes and how to talk to the hospice people. They were willing to say "yes" and "no" to my specific questions, but not willing to give explanatory sentences. But it took a long time to know what questions to ask.
That was the era of the TV series Six Feet Under, and I learned a lot from that series. It's about a family in the undertaking business. The father, undertaker, dies and the sons take over. They live in the house where the basement has the business, they hold funeral services in the parlor. There are ideas, philosophies and practicalities in this series that made it feel more a part of the big picture. The family is comfortable with it, and so what has to happen is comfortable to them. It's shocking to us who have never been through "the journey," as they call it, if we don't know what to expect. I've been much more comfortable since.
I like the compost thing as well.
The zen teaching I know is that nobody goes anywhere, your dead ancestors live on in your cells, in the energy they expended, they can be reached whenever the living think back on them. And yet at the same time they are not, since nothing is permanent, everything is always shifting and nothing remains the same, not even us from moment to moment.
To me, that says compost in the same sort of "lion king" way (not to dumb it down even further, but why reinvent the wheel)- we become the grass, the antelope eat the grass, we eat the antelope... it's the circle of life, or energy.
I hated answering this question when my own daughter asked it. I am also "post religious" (i.e. after losing a parent and another child in the same year, my regard for the organized religion and culture i grew up with were pretty much toast). I like the idea of energy remaining, and I confess that I look for signs, blips in the system if you like. There are times when I swear I can hear my gone loved ones speaking through other people, or when most unusual things happen and there's no other way to explain. But I have to say I think it is the most honest, and while I will never win awards for parenting I feel really strongly about being honest with children.
For me the body is just the shell the spirit occupies so we can walk with mother earth and experience her glories.
Once it comes time to move on for even greater experiences the shell must be cast aside so it can go back to the earth mother and the spirit can move to the next realm of experiences.
Death is just what happens when it is time for us to leave the shell of earth time behind.
Both my Irish ancestors and my Native American ancestors had the same point of view when heading into a battle "today is a good day to die" it was not about the actual death but the recognition that only the body can die, the spirit will move on.
There have been many times in my life that I have drummed and sung to the spirits to come and give me council so I would be able to make good decisions about difficult things.
I have many friends who have experienced this with me, they are always astounded at their experience of a such a drumming session, some have run away because of their experience.
One even told me "that was so intense it just freaked me out", interestingly enough that person asked if they could come to another one about three weeks later.
I was told that "what I felt I saw happen, did happen just last week", I need to talk to my ancestors again if you don't mind.
Great way to handle this. Four might be a little too young to drop a death-bomb hammer.
I also feel that the outdoors are spiritual. For me, working in the garden, hiking, fishing or just about anything outside brings an immense feeling of connection and simplicity.
We went scuba diving last week, it took: 30 minutes to get out to a reef in the Atlantic. I can't explain the awesome calm and feeling of connection I felt. Some of it comes from memories past but some of it is just being in it.
For me, death is something that is central to living. I don't think it's something to commiserate but we should pay more attention to it. Many would not live the way they do if they recognized their own mortality. The chance of being born on this little marble, 10 followed by 2, 685,000 zeroes, yes, that's a 10 followed by 2,685,000 zeroes.
As my kids have gotten older I am straight up about death. Both are teenagers. Life is short, use your time wisely.
A weed is but an unloved flower. Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I'm pretty sure that when things die, they are dead and gone forever. That's because I have never seen any evidence to the contrary. There's a very difficult contractor that I know, who recently hired a young man from India. I asked if he was Hindu, and he is. I said you must have been a murder or something in your past life, because I see you're working for Darren. Even Darren thought that was funny.
My children had a few pets like budgies and hamsters, that tend to expire. So they learned about death that way. We had a Labrador Retriever for 14 years. Her death was particularly hard on my youngest daughter who was the same age. She had never known life without Peggy. I have had lots of old relatives die and other old people that I knew. But for me, the loss of the dog was a more emotional experience, probably because she was with us for her entire life, and behaved much like a child. We expect old people to die. When my uncle died of exposure in Lake Huron at 24, that was a much more somber affair and than when my grandmother died at 93.
It doesn't always have to be a negative thing. I remember when a drunkard who was somewhat related, died when he tried to take a bicycle over a jump. It was a very fitting end to a mid-fifties guy who had always lived in a very self-destructive manner. My brother called to tell me the news and we both had a laugh at Wayne's expense.
I used to have one of those Darwin Awards books and I would read the comical stories to my kids. It was entertaining but also instructive. They learned things like, don't climb a TV Tower during a lightning event. Don't dive into 4 inches of water. Don't try to jump a body of water with your car and the list goes on. The Darwin Awards tends to deal with gory details. I don't remember one that said don't put on 300 pounds more than your frame can handle.
I like the compost explanation. My thinking is similar.
Something I might mention as well, is how everything that is us was once made in a star. How what makes up everything in all of us has been recycled and reused over and over. How even the water that is in us was the pee of a dinosaur (kids seem to love that idea, dinosaurs and pee being topics of high interest to them). That when we die what is us is again recycled and put back into the the ecosystem, to become the next thing and the next.
As for the age issue some have brought up, a lot depends upon the child. I have had deep meaningful conversations with 5 yr olds. Like one girl who just loved the concept that to aliens we here on earth would be considered aliens. And how one's perspective changes the meaning of words. Don't underestimate a child's ability to understand and you might be surprised by how much they get what is being discussed.
"Where will you drive your own picket stake? Where will you choose to make your stand? Give me a threshold, a specific point at which you will finally stop running, at which you will finally fight back." (Derrick Jensen)
I just wanted to share one of my favorite youtube channels that deals with the subject of death and how to talk about it. It's hosted by Caitlin Doughty founder of The Order of The Good Death.
"The Order is about making death a part of your life. Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not."
Death now is so much different than when our grandparents were children. Back then almost any death was a quick one.
I didn't find it hard explaining a death to my children, what I found difficult was justifying the doctors need to prolong life even when there is suffering.
I'm good with the compost answer. All talk of spirit is fine for people who incline thusly, but my particular materialist bent preferences the experiences of my senses, and the best experiential model I can put together suggests that "I" am a buggy bit of software running on an impressive-but-fragile computer implemented in soggy meat that comes factory-installed with a bunch of hard-to-ignore programs for self-replication. After the peak years for reproduction the whole mess starts to fall over like a stack of raccoons in a trench coat, and it's a miracle when it hangs together at all after that, much less for sixty or seventy more years.