I have been a parent of three, grandmother of two and teacher of countless hundreds of children, all of whom trusted me – at some point or another – to answer some of life’s biggest questions.
Sadly, just about all of them came into contact with life events that would spark one of the very biggest questions of all – what happens when someone dies?
We in the West, in the early 21st century, live in a time peculiarly badly equipped to deal with this issue. On the one hand we have a strange, sanitised left-over version of mediaeval religion’s ideas. On the other we have the scientific empirical humanist concept of life, which doesn’t tally with it at all. Hovering around the edges are the various unclassified spiritual beliefs that ‘life’ survives death in some form or other.
When I wrote The Glassmaker’s Children, I decided this was one of the questions I needed to spend some time addressing. The results were sometimes surprising. Despite the subject of death and dying being confined to a single conversation between elderly Misty and her young pupil Stellan, one adult reader of the book contacted me to say she had always struggled to explain death to her son and was now sending him a copy of my book – although he is in his thirties now – as she felt it would put his mind at rest.
I first came across The Dreaming Place when my own mother relocated there, some five or six years before her physical death. This will be a familiar story to anyone who has watched a loved one with dementia.
When we dream at night, sometimes we are ourselves, sometimes we are a younger or older version of ourselves and at other times we are participating in a quite different life as another person. That is exactly how ‘waking’ life is for someone with dementia.
I would visit Mum at her care home several times a week. Sometimes she ‘recognised’ me as myself at once and chatted away cheerfully. At others she would see me as her younger sister (often in the middle of some age-old childhood squabble – I would get a real mouthful then!). The next time she might interpret me as a visiting doctor or health worker and be glassily polite and charming. There were times I wasn’t sure who I was in her narrative-of-the-moment. It all made some sort of sense to her and was – until I finally realised what was happening – frightening and distressing to me.
Dementia, then – this dreaming-while-awake taken to extremes – is how some choose to transition between life and afterlife. Others simply sleep more and more before drifting away. Others make an instant jump. It’s never easy for those left behind here, but helpful, maybe, to have a view of life and death that side-steps the coldness of science and the mixed messages of religion.
This is how Misty tackles it in my book, when young Stellan questions her about her explanation of life and death to his toddler sister:
“Well, let’s see if I can help you to make some sense of it. Firstly, I meant and believed exactly what I said to Ruby Rose that day. However, as you’ve pointed out, many other people think differently. Moira, for example, who goes to chapel every Sunday, would say that birth is a miracle and that people have a soul as well as a body. She believes everyone should try hard to be good during their lives because those who are will be saved by God and their souls will go to Heaven.”
“Yes, that’s sort of what we learned at my old school,” nodded Stellan. “We sung lots of hymns about Heaven in assembly, anyhow.”
“Quite. Now if you were to ask Edward – your Mr E – he would say that birth is a result of chemical changes inside the mother’s body, that the new born child is simply a collection of cells that are constantly altering, dying and renewing themselves, causing the body and mind to grow until it finally reaches a point where it can no longer stay alive and then the body dies and rots away and that’s all there is to it. That’s the scientific view.”
Stellan was silent for quite a time, thinking about that, and Misty stayed quiet to allow him to do so.
“The two ideas are very different,” he said, finally. “So do people have to choose which one they think is right, or does somebody tell them?”
“Ha!” laughed Misty, “There will be no shortage of people telling you what to believe! The secret is to listen, then decide for yourself. Find the beliefs that feel right to you but – and this is most important – always allow others to hold their own beliefs without criticising or laughing at them.”
Stellan looked hard at Misty. “What about you?” he asked. “You don’t believe either of those things, do you?”
Misty thought for a moment before answering.
“I believe parts of both of them,” she said, carefully choosing her words, “but I don’t think either of them gives the whole picture.
“Let’s take chemistry; chemistry is the study of changes – astonishing, marvellous changes. People who are very young, though, or very old – and a few others – know chemistry by another name. They know it as Magic. … It’s the way to use your Dreaming Self – the part of you that goes on forever, the part Moira might call your soul, or whatever the Welsh for that might be. That’s the part of you that can do anything just by thinking about it.
“Small children, who still remember what it’s like to be in the Dreaming Place, know all about it. That’s why I enjoy hearing Ruby Rose’s ‘perspectives’ so much. People near the end of their lives realise they’ll soon be back there, so they start to remember the Magic, too. That, I think, is why very young and very old people sleep so much.”
“They spend more time in the Dreaming Place, you mean? Yes, I see that. But you and me – I mean I’m quite young and you’re quite old, but not very. So how do we remember the Magic if most people forget it or don’t believe it’s there?”
Misty chuckled. “That’s an excellent question, my dear! I think perhaps people like us wake up in our dreams and keep dreaming in this Waking Place. Does that sound right to you?”
“I’ll need to think about it,” Stellan admitted. “But I’m glad it was a good question.”
The Glassmaker’s Children is available in Kindle and Paperback from Amazon and other booksellers.