An inelegant but parsimonious theory of death

Last night I dreamed about my great-grandmother, Buby. My last strong memory of her is of the two of us standing in her studio apartment’s kitchenette: me, a rebellious sixteen year old with attitude; her, a warm and wrinkled ninety-four year old asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I was finished my schooling. Even though she could not wrap her head around the idea that I wanted so much more for myself than working as a salesperson in a shop and that my education was barely beginning, the over-riding feeling that flows through this memory is one of all-encompassing love and acceptance.

Last night’s dream was usual in that both my great-grandmother and my grandfather, who died around this time last year, made an appearance. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, I turned around and there she was. Younger than I remember her in my mind’s eye, she was wearing a soft baby blue cashmere turtleneck sweater reminiscent of her daughter, my great-aunt Muriel and plastered across her face was a wide open smile, framed by her famous red lips and carefully rouged high cheekbones. As she registered my surprise at seeing her there, she let out a relaxed little laugh and said “You didn’t really think I was gone? Don’t you know that I’m always there with you?”. As I turned, I saw my debonair grandfather in the driver seat, wearing his signature tie and fedora he smiled and nodded his agreement at me.

I woke-up soon thereafter with tears streaming down my face. As I navigated my way towards consciousness a more recent memory of my son came to mind. At the age of three and a half, he became very curious about death, asking me “What happens when we die?” That evening, lying together cuddled in the darkness, I explained to him that when we die, our bodies eventually disintegrate, like discarded orange peels that no longer contain delicate fruit needing protection. But, the part that makes us us, the part that makes him the special and unique person that he is and that holds his light, never disintegrates, it just disperses into everywhere and nowhere.

Initially, this knowledge translated itself into vigorous planning manifested in the following forms: “Mom, when you die, I’m going to bury your body in brown, so that no one will see the dirt on you”, “Mom, I get to have all your money when you die since I’m your only child, right?”, “Mom, when you die, I’m going to add another floor to the house and renovate it”, “Mom, don’t worry, I’ll always come visit you and talk to you when you’re dead so you won’t be lonely.”

Over time, my son’s preoccupation with the details of what to do with the physical when I’m gone morphed into a more sophisticated dialogue about death. And throughout it all, I was reminded of how at various points in my life complete strangers have pulled me aside to let me know that I have many guides escorting me through life, keeping me safe, sometimes in spite of myself.

And now, as my son and I talk about death, I know that I will need to explain to him my true beliefs around death: that when we die, our soul or energy does not disperse. Instead, it goes into the universe and attaches to what, for lack of a better term, I call the great glob of souls in the sky. When a new person is born, a soul is created from the amorphous mass that is either identical to one that previously existed or an entirely new combination with bits and pieces taken in various percentages of older souls.

For me, this explains why we sometimes meet someone and instantly have a connection and are drawn to them, recognize something of ourselves in another, or see bits of someone else we know or have known in another. It also explains why some people have outstanding talents in certain areas, such as master painters, musicians, or mathematicians, having amassed all of that particular energy from preexisting souls, and why others have incredibly outstanding dominant traits, such as mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, that allow them to leave a legacy to the world.

As I think about this, I gaze at a painting on my desk, given to me by a stranger over fifteen years ago in Nepal. On the front of it is a simple image of a face but inscribed on the back is a reminder of how all of us in the universe are connected. Keeping this in mind, I know that as long as my son understands that the universal we is me, he will be able to live his life and meet death with joy and equanimity, knowing that our time on this planet is just one stop in time on an ever continuing journey.