01/09/2015 06:16 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Talking to My Toddler About Death, Faith and Other Oddities

Amber Nichols-Buckley

A few days ago, my 3-year-old, Jane, who is inquisitive by nature and has a recent interest in mortality, looked up from her dolls and asked, "Will I get new eyes when I die?"

And the world stopped, as it often does these days as Jane becomes more curious about the physical realities of the world.

"No," I told her. "Those will be your eyes while you're alive and after you die."

I may be totally over thinking this parenting thing, but I have an incredible distaste for lying to Jane, even at her young age. I certainly will not reveal the graphic details of what happens to our bodies after death. But, I remember knowing so little about what death meant for people when I was a child, besides the blanket explanation of heaven.

Of course, growing up on a Mississippi farm, I had a personal understanding of what death does to a bird that hits a window or a chicken that meets its jarring demise in the jaws of a rather mischievous dog. I understood that a possum, a victim of hit and run, seemed to sink back into the earth so quietly and so peacefully compared to its violent end. Observing the natural world and its response to death brought me into a more peaceful understanding of what death does to humans as well. But, Jane, a city girl, doesn't get that same sort of exposure.

After a few more moments of play, she revealed, nonchalantly, "At church, they said that Jesus died and came back. Are we going to come back?"

Ah, the ultimate dilemma.

A million responses came to mind, many of them attached to the dictates of a faith that my husband and I take more metaphorically than literally. But I knew if I went down the path of "No, but we all go to heaven," there would be more and more follow-up questions whose answers ring so shallow to me at this stage of my life. You see, I don't want Jane to fear death in the way I did, as something that is unnatural, that we need to be saved from. I just wonder, if we keep explaining things in an honest way, without all of the stories we use to justify the natural processes of life, will Jane have a better understanding of what life truly means than I had hearing different explanations?

"No," I told her, calmly and plainly. "We do not come back after we die."

I expected extreme fear. Chaos. A need to fill in the endless void of that one statement. But all I got at that moment from her was, "Oh."

More questions will come, I'm sure of it. But I find that when I try to "fluff" the truth of things, Jane tends to have more anxiety about it. One time she asked me when she might die. Thrown off, I blurted, "Not until you're very old!" Well, that sent her into a torrent of worry.

"Mimi's old!" she cried in a panic. "Does that mean she's going to die soon?"

Ugh... totally screwed up that one.

So, I've decided to be calm and honest when Jane asks me the tough questions. My husband and I have had lengthy conversations about what we want Jane to understand about the world of faith and the natural order of things. And these conversations have given us "new eyes" in our own right -- an ability to embrace the things we were taught as children that have benefited our development as well as the ability to think critically about what hindered our understanding of the world in a way we want to try to avoid with Jane. Maybe, in a world where strife is rampant, where ideals often override logic and humanity, we all need to strive for "new eyes."