Do You Still Carry Your Childhood Beliefs about Death?

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.

Photo credit:

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.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Jennifer Mathews, M.A., is a writer, spiritual cheerleader, and change maker. She currently calls both Bristol, Vermont and Mount Shasta, California home (when she's not traveling elsewhere, that is).

Based on her own exploration of death, grief, joy and optimism, Jen offers life-affirming perspectives and practical tools to support others on their journeys. In her personal and unconventional TEDx Talk, “Death is Inevitable – Grief is Not,” she invites us to break free from the limitations and language of a grieving process and change the way we think about and respond to the death of those we love.

Jen is a founding member and organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. As part of the Community Outreach team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, she has facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

4 thoughts on “Do You Still Carry Your Childhood Beliefs about Death?

  1. I will carry my childhood umbrella into my future:

    “Now I lay me down to sleep
    I pray the Lord my soul to keep
    If I should die before I wake
    May daddy meet me at Heaven’s gate”

    I continue this nightly ritual. I’m not quite sure when I started it. Like you, a Catholic upbringing in the seventies, I guess I learned the original version along the way.

    What I don’t understand is how or when I developed my unorthodox views on death and dying. My acceptance of the fact that death is inevitable and not something to fear.

    As you know, my father passed away unexpectedly when I was 16. Sure, I grieved then and still do in my own way…in a healthy way.

    But I am a New Soul…I like my cheery rainbow umbrella and refuse to leave it behind. I will proudly carry it on through my middle life here in, as you say, Earth School. And I will continue to love, learn, laugh and endure the losses we all experience.

    You are such an Old Soul, Jen. Thanks for sharing your words with the world.

    Love and Hugs from the South,

  2. I also was one of the millions of kids raised with that prayer, despite not much attachment to religion in my family, and somehow I had complete faith that God would take my soul, since I felt sure I was good (back then!). But my mind always wondered, even at a young age, why the prayer was needed….what the other options could possibly be. You know, where could a soul possibly go that God wasn’t there?

    • I so appreciate your comment of “where could a soul possibly go that God wasn’t there” . . . Such a deep and simple reflection on the bigger picture of life and death. Thank you!!