Yesterday evening, I’m not sure why, Silas asked me what it’s like to be dead. Maybe because we saw a movie where someone died?
I’m very much a “What do you think?” kind of parent when it comes to these sorts of questions. I want my kids to develop their faith and their ideas about the Big Questions with guidance from me, JC, their Sunday school teachers, our pastors, and other trusted friends and family–but I want them to be their own. After all, I think if you asked a dozen people–even people within the same faith tradition–that question, they’re all going to have a bit of a different take on it. Everyone has had a different kind of encounter with death, a different set of experiences reading the scriptures that reference what happens afterward, a different way of managing the unknowing.
And it is the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. I don’t want to lie to my children with a certain kind of honesty or pat answers. I have a lot of questions, myself.
But when I said, “What do you think?” he said, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.”
“Do you mean what does your body feel like?”
“Well, when a person dies, their body just sort of…stops,” I said. “Their heart stops beating, and their blood stops moving through their veins. Their cells stop making copies of themselves. They stop breathing.”
“Can you still see things when you’re dead?”
“Not in the way you’re thinking of,” I said. “Because your brain stops processing the information from your eyes.”
“So it’s just like you have your eyes closed? It’s like looking at blackness?”
I didn’t know how to answer. I did my best. “No, dead people aren’t looking at blackness. They just aren’t.”
He started to cry. “I just don’t understand how they can’t see if they have eyes! Wouldn’t their eyes still be seeing? I think that unless you’re blind, you’d keep seeing because you still have eyes.”
“There are some people who believe that whatever is wrong with your body in this life is made better in whatever comes next. So maybe blind people would be able to see.”
“So they can see if they’re dead!”
I tried a different direction: “What makes you different from, say, a chair?”
“The chair used to be a tree, but now it’s a dead tree. So it doesn’t grow or process sunlight or make new leaves. It’s just dead.”
“So when I die, I’ll be like a chair?” More tears.
“Well, many people believe that your spirit or your life force continues, even though your body stops. Some people believe that your spirit goes to be part of God or to heaven, whatever that means for you. And some people believe that your energy just becomes part of everything. There are also people who believe that your spirit comes back in a new life or a new body. And there are people who believe that all of what is you–both your body and your personality or spirit or whatever–just stop. But no one knows exactly. There are a lot of different ideas.”
But he was still fixated on seeing. “Does a soul have eyes?”
“Not like you are thinking of them.”
“So when you’re dead, it is like staring at blackness.”
We went around and around like this for a surprisingly long time. He finally said, “I think that I want to think that when people die they go to Heaven to be with God. But I don’t know. Does anyone really know?”
“Well, Jesus rose from the dead, but what he had to say about that experience is pretty metaphorical, I think. Maybe it’s something that is really hard to describe until you experience it. But generally, no–once people are dead, they can’t report back on what that’s like.”
Petra had been listening with what I can only describe as silent fascination as Silas and I muddled our way through this conversation. Finally she said, “I think when you die, you become a fossil. It takes millions of years. Except your eyes, because they are too soft to become fossils. They get eaten by scavengers.”
I stared at her.
“God loves fossils,” she added, and skipped off to play LEGOs.
Silas and I just sat and stared at each other, left completely speechless. I couldn’t stop looking at his beautiful eyes.