A Question of Life and Death

Mother and little boy reading together

"Are you going to die?" a five year old asked me.
"Yes, but I don't know when", I answered.
"My mom is dying soon", he said.

In my professional life as a physician I worked with many dying people, both old and young. While older people were usually fearful and controlled and often kept many of their deep thoughts and feelings to themselves, children and teenagers were much more forthcoming and open. They wanted to know why people died and what happened to them when they died. They asked if after their death they would be aware of this world. They wanted to know if there was a life after death and, if not, what was the purpose of their short life. They also asked me if I was afraid to die. And afraid I was. And I did not know the answers to many of their questions.

So, I began to think about these matters, to read about death and dying, to carefully observe those clients of mine who were facing death, and to find ways of understanding death better. On many occasions distraught parent asked me to help them to prepare their children to face either their own death or the death of someone close to them. In my research I had come across an analogy that compared life and death in this world to life in the womb and our subsequent birth. This analogy had a sound basis, both empirically and philosophically, and I introduced it into my practice as a significant adjunct to the psychological help, which I was offering my clients.

Use of analogies to understand difficult concepts is an ancient and extremely valuable practice. Through analogies we reach different layers of insight and make complicated matters much easier to understand. I have shared the above analogy with many people, in different parts of the world, both in clinical and educational settings, with much positive response.

A unique aspect of this analogy is that it does not rely upon similarities between the death of human beings and the death of animals or plants. Using the example of animals or plants to help children to understand human death neither solves its mystery nor decreases its trauma. In fact, such comparisons may even add to the fears and confusion of children. When our pets die we can replace them with another pet, and when a plant dies we can grow another plant. However, we cannot do the same with humans. People are not replaceable.

We must help children to understand, to the best of their ability, the reality and finality of death and its relationship with life. Children as young as four (and sometimes even younger) are aware of death. They need help to understand death in the context of life and its continuity. Older children and youth also need our help to better understand the reality and purpose of death and its relationship with life.

We need to understand the relationship between life and death not only when we face death, but under all conditions. Individuals and societies that avoid dealing with death become preoccupied with death in an unhealthy and excessive manner, become indifferent to life, and become fascinated with violence. They also become more violent.

The mysterious Case of the I.W.'s is written both for parents and children, caregivers and patients, and teachers and students. It deals with issues of life and death in a realistic, hopeful, and meaningful manner. Parents, care-givers, and teachers are invited to study the text themselves first and then share The Mysterious Case of the I.W.'s as it is presented here, or in a simpler or more comprehensive manner, according to age, level of maturity, and unique circumstances of those involved. (From Introduction to the Mysterious Case of the IWs)

Dr. H.B. Danesh