By Smiraa Misra, PSEO Student
What is death? This is a question that every person on Earth will have to struggle with at some point in time. The idea of death often seems to evade us—we understand that it's the end of a life, but we don't know how to conceptualize “the end.” For children, who are just learning how the world works, “the end” is even more difficult to understand. Is it when our brain stops working? Or is it when our body begins to break down and decay?
As we grow older, we begin to recognize that death is far more than just a physical body decaying. It is not just the end of a life; it’s the end of an existence. Death is an emotional roller coaster that never ends. Once children begin to comprehend the end of a life, reality actually sets in. Questions arise about how it works, why does it happen, and what’s on the other side? Alongside these questions comes fear and paranoia. I myself struggled with the reality of death and the uncertainty of what came after it.
I could never understand the permanence of death until the death of my grandpa. I was six years old when he died, and before then, death was never a tangible concept. How could people simply cease to exist? It didn’t seem possible. I watched my grandpa be carried off in a glass coffin to his cremation site in blissful ignorance. I was smiling. How couldn’t I? He looked at peace and happy. I thought he was asleep. Only once I saw my dad, my invincible dad, cry, did it click: my grandpa was not coming back.
Once children begin to comprehend the end of a life, reality actually sets in. Questions arise about how it works, why does it happen, and what’s on the other side?
I finally cried. For the first time, as a six-year-old, I understood that death was not temporary, it was not just “falling asleep.” It was everlasting.
From that moment onwards, the nightmares started. I could never fall asleep. The fear of what came after death kept me in a constant state of tossing and turning. Even if I drifted off for just a second, I would wake up from a harrowing vision of my family dying. Whether I was awake or asleep; it didn’t matter. Death as a whole refused to let me sleep. I refused to talk to my parents about it, afraid that even mentioning the word “death” would manifest it into existence. Unfortunately, the universe seemed to hold a vendetta against me, because one night, my fear that had been persisting for months culminated into an intolerable panic attack.
I was heaving, sobbing. I felt like there were metaphysical hands clutching onto my throat so I couldn’t breathe. This time, I was riding on death’s emotional roller coaster with no restraint to keep me from falling. The darkness of my bedroom closed in on me. I couldn’t see or hear anything. The next few events were a blur, but I remember the lights turning on and my parents rushing into the room. I could barely see their faces through my tears. They sat next to me until I managed to calm down. They asked me what was wrong and I talked to them about my fear of death. My fear of losing those I love to death’s universal power. My fear of the uncertainty of what came after.
There was a strange comfort knowing that even if my physical body ceased to exist, my spirit would never die. My religion provided some type of assurance, some type of faith for me to grasp onto even in the face of death’s ambiguity.
My parents shared a look of both surprise and sadness. They didn’t seem to have realized the internal turmoil I had been going through since my grandpa’s funeral. I remember my mom engulfing me in a tight hug, grounding me to reality and telling me it was okay to be afraid. It was okay to grieve my grandpa’s death and it was okay that I was having difficulty coming to terms with the irreversibility and unpredictability of life ending. I then remember my dad’s comforting voice and his hands firmly holding mine. He said he wanted to tell me a story about the cycle of life and death in Hinduism, our religion.
“In Hinduism, death is never necessarily the end. There is a constant cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction. Brahma creates life, Vishnu preserves it, and Shiva destroys it. But, do you know why Shiva destroys life? It’s so he can recreate it. Life dies so it can be reborn in another form. When we die, our atman, or soul, is reincarnated as another form of life. So even if one of our lives ends, we continue to live on through our soul.”
Honestly, I didn’t understand my dad’s wisdom at that point. Everything went in one ear and out the other. My head was still spinning and silent tears continued to drip from my eyes. After what seemed like forever, my disorientation and panic began to ebb away, and my dad’s words finally clicked. Those simple words changed my entire perspective on death, and thus, on life itself. There was a strange comfort knowing that even if my physical body ceased to exist, my spirit would never die. My religion provided some type of assurance, some type of faith for me to grasp onto even in the face of death’s ambiguity.
I no longer saw death as the absolute end; rather, I learned to see it as a new beginning.
Now, even though I am still afraid of losing the ones I love, I am no longer caught in fear’s paralyzing grip. When I think about death, I don’t feel paranoid anymore. In fact, I feel a bittersweet sense of hope. I hope that even if I lose someone in this life, my soul will do its best to find them in the next.
Today, even as I’m much older than six, I still wonder how I was able to comprehend and cope with death by using my religion. I no longer saw death as the absolute end; rather, I learned to see it as a new beginning. The story about life and death that my dad told me is the concept of reincarnation, a foundational aspect of the cycle of life in Hinduism. I understand that reincarnation is a part of my religion, but I know that reincarnation is a belief that spans various belief systems across the world.
A major South Asian-based religion that also subscribes to the idea of reincarnation is Buddhism. I’ve always wondered how the cycle of life and death compares to a belief system separate from mine. Is the fundamental concept of reincarnation consistent across both Hinduism and Buddhism?