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I have a talkative family. Mostly, our everyday conversations are about routine topics such as schedules, work, food, sports, and updates on family and friends, but there are moments when we have rich conversations about meatier subjects such as ethics, history, faith and fate.
These thoughtful discussions are never planned, they happen organically. But while the timing of them is unpredictable, I have noticed that they tend to take place in three locations: in the car, around the Shabbat table, and in nature.
Maybe these conversations happen in these spots because we are relaxed, our minds are cleared of to-do lists, and our hands and eyes are freed from electronics. Or maybe the settings put us in a contemplative mood. Whatever the cause, I cherish these opportunities to connect with my family, and especially my son Sammy who is about to enter his preteen years officially.
In these magical moments, my husband and I get to hear our son’s thoughts about life, values, God, and spirituality, and our son hears the same from us. Depending on the themes we’re discussing, we weave in details about history, Judaism, books, science and other relevant topics. Because our son is present and engaged in these conversations, he absorbs and is more receptive to the information being presented.
On a walk in the Vermont woods during our recent summer vacation, the subjects of life and death came-up. I pointed out a nurse log on the side of the path. A nurse log is a decomposing tree trunk that provides the moisture and nutrients necessary for the growth of new plants. We learned about them last summer during a hike in Alaska.
As we looked at the log, Sammy said that all living things, including people, are like nurse logs. He explained his theory of what happens when people die and are buried. He said that as the bodies decay, nutrients are added to the soil, the enriched soil nourishes the growth of new life in the form of plants.
I thought his idea was quite logical, in line with Sammy’s often scientifically oriented thinking. Then he said, “But the question is, do people live on in some way. What happens to a person’s soul?”
I explained that many Jews believe we live on through the legacy that we leave behind – our family, reputation, work and good deeds. Sammy acknowledged that this was one way–a tangible way–to think about living on, but that wasn’t what he was talking about. His thoughts were metaphysical in nature.
He said he believed that when the body decays part of its soul moves into the plant that grows from the soil that has been nourished during decomposition. When an animal eats the plant, it absorbs the soul. In this way, the soul moves up the food chain eventually reaching another person.
My husband and I listened intently while Sammy shared his ideas. We were fascinated by how he easily his mind moved between rational and mystical thinking, and how he interwove concrete and abstract concepts.
I shared with him that the idea that the soul moves through different realms after death is present in Judaism. “Really?” He said.
“Really. Some Jews believe that when they recite the Kaddish for a loved one who has died, it lifts the soul of the deceased from one spiritual world to another moving it ever higher each year that the Mourner’s Prayer is said.”
“Wow. That’s pretty cool,” Sammy replied. He then added, “Don’t you love when we have these kinds of conversations? I mean we were talking about a nurse log and now we’re talking about the soul.”
My husband and I do love these conversations as much as Sammy. They are unlike our everyday parent-child interactions. There is no nagging, admonishing, reminding or repeating. We appreciate these small opportunities to build connection and family intimacy because, in our hyperscheduled, too-busy-for-downtime lives these moments aren’t always easy to find.
One of the teachers at Baby’s school (aka daycare) was killed in a car accident last weekend. She was much loved at the school and has a daughter who would have moved up to Baby’s class in the next week or so. (That child is safe with her grandma, out of school right now.)
While I’m thankful that Baby is too young to comprehend this loss; my own confusion on how to react has me thinking about his confusion when situations like this–death–arise in the future. Death, unexpected or not, is confusing enough for adults and adults of one faith. How much more so will it be for Baby as he grows, when he’ll be dealing with two faiths? While he’s being raised with a Jewish identity, half of his family is not Jewish. Plus, we live in the Bible Belt, where most people assume you’re like they are and that words like “He/she is safe and at peace with Jesus now” will give you as much comfort as it gives them. How will we help him navigate the well-meant condolences of others, and offer his own? How will we help him understand (far, far in the future, G-d willing) that we’ll sit Shiva for Bubbe and Zayde and Grandma and Grandpa D, but not for Granny and Popi or Grandma and Grandpa G? (Or, wait, will we sit Shiva for Granny and Popi because they’re Daddy’s Mommy and Stepdaddy, even though Granny and Popi aren’t Jewish? See? Confusing!)
Probably people are going to tell me not to worry about these things yet; that there’s lots of time to figure it out, and they’re probably right. I HOPE AND PRAY they’re right. But as time and this blog goes on, you might discover I’m a bit of a planner. And while this is hopefully very long-term planning, it’s still something I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on. How would you/have you handled it in your own families?(Author’s note: I promise to not post such “downer” topics all the time. This is just something that, sadly, has been on my heart since I found out Monday.)