Naw Ruz marks the end of the Fast and the beginning of a new year in the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz is a celebration of a “spiritual springtime” that symbolizes both individual renewal and mankind’s revitalization.
Death is an inescapable part of life. Children are often aware of death from early on in their lives as they hear about it in fairy tales, see it on television or encounter dead animals outside. Some children may have already experienced the death of a pet or family member, or they may have been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
In my case, my daughter was 4 years old when she noticed a dead bird on the sidewalk. What followed was a bombardment of questions about death. She was obsessed with the topic for months, trying to tackle the issue from various angles. I asked other parents whether they’d had a similar experience, and I was interested to hear that most children, at one point, will become curious about death.
When answering my daughter’s questions about death I tried to align my answers with the Baha’i Writings. Shoghi Effendi, gives the following explanation about death:
You ask an explanation of what happens to us after we leave this world: This is a question which none of the Prophets have ever answered in detail, for the very simple reason that you cannot convey to a person’s mind something entirely different from everything they have ever experienced. Abdu’l-Baha gave the wonderful example of the relation of this life to the next life being like the child in the womb; it develops eyes, ears, hands, feet, a tongue, and yet it has nothing to see or hear, it cannot walk or grasp things or speak; all these faculties it is developing for this world. If you tried to explain to an embryo what this world is like it could never understand–but it understands when it is born, and its faculties can be used. So we cannot picture our state in the next world. All we know is that our consciousness, our personality, endures in some new state, and that that world is as much better than this one as this one is better than the dark womb of our mother was… 1
I found the comparison of a child in the womb a powerful analogy, as it offered a practical and intuitive framework to answer my daughter’s questions. I’ve listed some of her questions and my responses below. Whilst this vast topic could be approached from a multitude of directions, I hope my answers provide some assistance and a starting point to those hoping to explore the topic of death with children.
Question: What happens when people die?
Answer: People are ‘born’ into the next world. When babies are in their mother’s womb they are connected to something called the placenta. The placenta has a cord that attaches to the baby’s bellybutton and through it the baby eats and breathes, as it can’t use its mouth. When the baby is born it doesn’t need the placenta anymore, because now it can use its mouth to eat and breath. Our bodies are like the placenta, when we are born into the next world we don’t need our bodies anymore, and our soul, which is like the baby in the womb, is born into the next world.
Just like the baby that has to grow in the womb and be ready for this world, we have to feed our soul, to make sure it’s strong and healthy for the next world. We feed it by showing kindness, generosity and all the virtues of God.
Question: Do we come back to this world?
Answer: Imagine someone told you to go back into your mother’s tummy, where it’s dark and you can’t run or see? Would you want to go back in? Of course not! Just like the baby that’s born does not go back into the womb, we don’t go back into this world.
Question: What does the next world look like?
Answer: Nobody knows. Baha’u’llah tells us that the next world is a beautiful place where our souls will be free. However, we are told we can’t even imagine what the next world would look like. Imagine explaining to a baby in its mother’s tummy about trees and light? The baby only knows the dark world inside the womb and could never imagine the outside world.
Question: What if I die and don’t know anyone in the next world?
Answer: When a child is in its mother’s tummy it doesn’t know anybody. When it’s born, God gives it a loving family and friends. If a baby had been too scared and said ‘I don’t want to be born!’ it would have missed out on meeting all its family and friends. There are lots of beautiful souls waiting in the next world to meet everyone that’s born.
Abdu’l-Baha, who was loving and kind to everyone He met, will look after anyone in the next world who is scared and lonely. He will wait with them for their family and friends to arrive.
Question: When will I die?
Answer: Nobody knows when they’ll be born into the next world. God decides when a soul is healthy and ready for the next world, or if God sees a soul is not growing properly in this world, He will take it to the next world to help it grow. Most people die when they’re old.
Question: What if my family dies?
Answer: When you were a baby in the womb you couldn’t see your family, but they were always with you, looking after you and waiting patiently for you to be born. If they die, just like when you were in the womb and you couldn’t see them, they’ll still be with you, looking after you and they’ll be waiting for you to be born in the next world. You can always communicate with them through prayer.
Answer: Animals don’t have a soul, so unlike humans they are not born into the next world. However all things, including animals, have an attribute of God within them, and these attributes of God are everlasting.
These are a few of the ideas about life after death that I shared with my daughter. If you are looking for more information on talking to children about death, The Light World by Heather Niderost is a beautiful short book written for that very purpose. If you are interested in reading some more reflections about the next world, Preethi wrote about Contemplating Death and Iko also explored some basic Baha’i principles on the topic. How would you describe death to a child, or to someone who isn’t familiar with these beliefs?
Footnotes & Citations
Lights of Guidance, From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, October 3, 1943[↩]
Kamelia is a Baha'i and a mother of three (plus an angel). She studied Law, Accounting and Children's Services, but spends most of her days now trying to navigate her way through motherhood. She is particularly interested in early childhood education and Baha'i scholarship.
This is absolutely lovely and touching. I wish every child could have such a loving and illuminating explanation of death. Thank you!
Alan Manifold (September 9, 2016 at 5:05 AM)
Thank-you Alan! I appreciate your kind words.
Kamelia (September 9, 2016 at 5:25 AM)
Thank you for his illuminating article Karelia. Are you considering writing a children’s book? I think it would be a wonderful piece of literature and I would be interested in promoting it in Primary Schools in a England.
Dennis Frere-Smith (September 9, 2016 at 4:53 AM)
Thank-you Dennis. Admittedly the thought had crossed my mind, but with your vote of confidence I’ll look into more thoroughly.
Kamelia (September 9, 2016 at 8:26 AM)
This is a great article. I was once asked by a friend to write a song about her nephew who died at the age of 7 years old. I thought about my own experience with bereavement and decided to write the song from the perspective of a loved one in the next world. Sometimes we in this world get the sense that the next world feels very close and these souls send us little signs of their love. Here’s a link to the song I wrote called That’s Me. Thanks for the great work you all do
Steve Zaat (December 12, 2019 at 12:44 PM)
Thank you so much for sharing this, Steve!
Sonjel Vreeland (December 12, 2019 at 4:19 PM)