As a child growing up Catholic in the 1970’s, I was taught to face my own death every night. I doubt that was the intention of the simple bedtime prayer I said from age three until my early teens. But that was the effect.
I imagine the prayer is familiar to some of you:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
and if I die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take
This little rhyme put the idea of a “soul” or spirit into my awareness. The underlying assumption was that I, or my soul, somehow continued on even after death.
The prayer also offered me a taste of what it must be like to die. It must be similar to falling asleep, and never waking up again. I often wondered what that would feel like, and imagined falling asleep forever. And other questions popped up, too.
Where would I go? What about my soul? If Jesus or God “took it,” where would they take it?
Oddly, the possibility of dying in my sleep felt very real because of this seemingly innocent prayer. So I repeated it every night, without fail, just to be safe. I wasn’t necessarily afraid of dying. Then again, I wasn’t afraid of rain either. But I was told if I carried an umbrella, it might keep the rain away. And the adults seems to prefer that it didn’t rain.
So I carried my umbrella – and my beliefs – like they did.
Learning behaviors from adults
When I was six years old, I sat cross-legged on my bed when my mom told me the news: my great-grandmother was sick and may die soon.
I wasn’t sure what to say or do.
By that time, I had already accompanied my mom to a number of open casket wakes for distant relatives and elders who had died. At the Polish-American neighborhood funeral home in Buffalo, New York, I watched people wail and sob over the bodies of their loved ones or friends. This kind of response was typical. It was a cultural norm for this community.
But I didn’t know that then. I assumed it meant death was an awful, painful thing and that it was important to react accordingly.
As my mom and I sat on my bed talking about her grandma, I remember feeling calm and wanting to comfort her. But I knew I was supposed to feel sad, and that this would somehow show I cared. I have a conscious memory of choosing to conjure up tears because that was expected of me. It was the “appropriate” thing to do. When someone might die, you cry because death isn’t desirable.
I learned this from watching adults’ behaviors.
Learning beliefs from adults
Meanwhile, I learned from Catholic school and church that our souls live forever, even after the body dies. I was taught that there is eternal life. As a young child, I was confused about people wailing at funerals when death was also something to rejoice about. Death meant you went to Heaven.
I learned this from listening to what adults said they believed.
Then again, you could also go to Hell, which added extra layers to how this whole “what-happens-when-you-die” thing worked. For some reason, I grasped onto the idea that everyone will be with God, whether they believed in God or not.
By the age of seven, the beliefs and behaviors I was exposed to about death and dying were filled with contradictions and question marks. Is death to be celebrated or avoided? Is dying the worst thing that can happen or is it a blessing from God? Do people go to different places or is everyone together again? How am I supposed to feel and act when someone dies?
It is no wonder why we grow up with internal conflicts and uncertainty around this topic. How many of these very early experiences go unexamined and still affect our present-time perspectives on death and how to respond to it?
Questioning what we learned as kids
Over a decade after my mom told me my great-grandma was nearing death, she was still alive. When I was nineteen – and she was ninety-six – I visited her in the nursing home. Her last words to me were among the few she knew in English: Be happy.
I took her advice.
I didn’t cry when she died months later. I didn’t feel sadness. Instead, I felt her liberation as she became an emigrant, yet again, to another unknown distant place beyond her wildest dreams. And beyond mine.
The truth is we don’t know for sure what happens when we die.
And while we can’t be sure what happens next, we can be sure that beliefs and behaviors we learned as young children may affect our outlook even today.
What are some of your early memories of how you were “supposed to” view or deal with death? Do they influence your current experience? Can you leave your childhood umbrella of learned beliefs and behaviors behind, and step into the fresh air with adult curiosity and wonder?
Hope to see you out there, rain or shine.
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