What do you say to a twelve year old who asks you what REALLY happens when you die?
Now, if you are a parent like me, you waffle, come out with something fairly ludicrous at the time. Typically, I would then go away, bang my head on my desk, think about what I SHOULD have said, and wait for the next opportunity to do a better job. It's rough, but it sort of works.
Couch this in the fact that this particular 12 year old has been dealing with the chronic disease and possible death of her mother for 6 years - exactly half her life, and most of her memory. This is a kid who not only has good coping skills for her age, but may have the best balance of any 12 year old I know. The best balance of any PERSON that I know. She continues to be the imp/buddha in my own personal sphere.
This question is not without thorns. And horns.
So I waffled, and hemmed and hawed, and came out with some random unconnected stuff. The bardo. I DON'T KNOW (Which was probably the truest thing I said.) Christians think this, unitarians think that, zen buddhists, I WISH this to be true. Gurgle. HELP! I'a total wuss and can we talk about this later? Then, thank goodness, we got talking about the avatar cartoon, and the subject wandered off topic.
Is there such a thing as a good death?
I think there is. My grandmother died at age 94, and demonstrated growing old with a lot of grace. She lived for almost 25 years after her husbands' death, and they had just celebrated their golden anniversary. 50 years married. 25 years after.
My mother died at 61, of ovarian cancer. She demonstrated NOT getting to grow old with quite a lot of grace. That story is told elsewhere. But I was there, and being a cancer survivor myself, it's not to hard that my own death will be similar to one of these. The option of being completely healthy until 80 years old, and then dropping dead in my sleep option has already passed me by.
So what will I say next time she asks?
The answer I WANT to believe comes in a lot of forms. Our Tess, for lack of a better term, seems like an old soul. Lots of this stuff I don't BELIEVE believe, just as I'm not sure I believe in love at first sight. Still, this one resonates with me.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead talks about the bardo, the state between things. You get to hang out there between death and rebirth, between waking and sleeping, between meditation and not. In the bardo with the other souls, you make a pact with your friends about what you are going to do in the next life, and plan out the relationships. You also generally get to hang out there, and rest, for as long as you want. Unless, of course, you have achieved nirvana, gotten off the wheel of suffering. Then you get to pick if you want to stick with it, or move up to the next level, or go back to help all beings achieve it.
What is the relationship that I have with my girl, and what pact did we make about being here together, as a mother and daughter?
I want her to remember this, down the line. That I never knew what would happen after death. But that I will still be around her, in some way, even if it is memory. Memory, there is really no only about that.
If I get to pick, this is one I want to believe. It may be a story, but it's a story that helps me inform how I want us, want her to see this, to help understand this process.
Death is not imminent. My recent health stuff has changed, and has turned a lot of stuff on it's head. Cancer statistics, which I can rattle off when asked, pointed to me having pretty low odds of surviving another five years, and that with repeated chemotherapy, and eventually continuous chemo. Not two words I happily put together. Recent tests ALL show huge improvement. Recent studies show greatly increased survival with metastatic breast cancer - like going from a 3% survival rate at 15 years to almost a 20% survival rate. This is good. I am on a medicine that I hate, an that make me feel likea train wreck..and ALL external indicators are that my cancer is going away. Who knew? Everything Changed, and I'm still making sense of the changes and the new information.
What story would you tell the help explain this stuff to your girl? Tell me of the nature of death, as you might in this circumstance.
From Tibetan buddhism:
1. Recognition of all beings as mothers. Understanding that we are all caught in the continual cycle of existence, it stands to reason that everyone you ever meet was once your mother in a past life, or will become your mother in a future life.
2. Mindfulness of kindness. It is important to be mindful of kindness in all its forms; not only in its recognition, but in its effect on the treatment of others.
3. Thought to repay kindness. When kindness is extended to you, you must be thoughful to repay that kindness.
4. Love. Because all beings are past mothers, one must generate a feeling of love toward all beings.
5. Compassion. The wish that all beings be separated from suffering and the causes of suffering.
6. The unusual attitude. "I alone will free all beings from suffering and the causes of suffering."
7. The altruistic aspiration to enlightenment.
Soundtrack - Mary Chapin Carpenter, in particular 10,000 miles.