How a deceased fantasy writer helped me explain death to my 4-year-old

Guest post by Mary Coen
Terry Pratchett Tribute Graffiti

“But, Mommy,” his little singsong voice trembled, “what happens when you die?”

I dared a glance in the rear view mirror. Dinner plate sized blue eyes stared back at me, enlarged with anxiety and dripping with need for me to swoop in and say something grown up that made it all better.

“Uhhh… feck.”

Death is a scary question. It is the scary question. It’s your first real encounter of the inevitable as a child; the day you realise, because you live, you are going to have to die. Petrifying! I didn’t want to dismiss it with the old Catholic one-liners that I was fed as a child, but I didn’t want to traumatise my child any further with whatever half-baked, uncharted belly flop into the pool of hippy parenting my brain was feverishly trying to piece together.

I glanced in the mirror again. He was still looking, still waiting. I swear his eyes were even larger this time — like giant vessels ready to be filled up with tears and childhood trauma because mommy didn’t think this crap the whole way through.

I was choking back the automatic response of “Heaven, sweetie,” with all my might.

To say that religion is a touchy subject is the understatement of however long ago it was when the first human hit the next with a stick for not believing the same thing as him. But when you’ve chosen to raise your family non-denominationally in a location where Catholic ethos dictates governmental action, it’s another issue entirely. We have gone to certain lengths, and lost a few friends along the way, to follow our belief in disbelief. We’re not irritating about it (or, at the very least, we try not to be). We don’t subscribe to the School of Atheist Smugness. We try our best to respect the beliefs of others to the extent that we chose to send our son to a multi-denominational school, instead of a non-denominational one. And yet, I found my brain frantically burping up the old Vatican go-to safety phrases. Sure, they’re soothing and a quick fix but it undermines what we believe which is… nothing in particular, but a little bit of everything at the same time. Oh dear.

“Well… different people believe different things,” I began slowly, cautiously. I explained about Heaven, reincarnation, et al. We even covered Valhalla and my rendition of Flight of the Valkyries got a pretty raucous laugh out of him (Please let him remember that I got a brief giggle out of him when he recounts this to a qualified psychotherapist in later life. Please!).

“So, what does happen?” he asked.

“Well, we don’t know.” I concluded, weakly, ever so weakly. There was a sharp intake of breath. When suddenly, in the bog of my memory, Terry Pratchett’s words came floating to the surface. I cannot for the life of me remember which book it was discussed in but there was a conversation between Death and another character in which Death assured the person that what happens next is whatever you believe happens next. So, I told Jim just that. Whatever he believed would happen next, does. He sat back in his car seat and his gaze switched from me to being cast out the window. He went very quiet.

You couldn’t just say Heaven, could you, idiot?! My brain hissed at me.

My dad introduced me to Terry Pratchett and the Discworld series. He read the books for as long as I could remember and it felt like a rite of passage when I was finally old enough to read and understand them myself. Pratchett’s work became an in-joke between my dad and me, another milestone — the first time you find yourself on the same humour wave length as any adult, particularly a parent. So Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has been something of a staple throughout my childhood, my teens, I read less in college (ironically), even less so after I became a mother. And now, out of seemingly nowhere, I was using his ideas to express thoughts on death, dying and the afterlife in a multitheological capacity to my own son. How bloody surreal.

“Well, mom,” the little voice in the back of the car pondered, snapping me out of my nostalgia. “We better make sure we believe the same things then. So we can be together.”

“Oookay.” I was touched. Concerned about where this was headed, but touched all the same. “What are we going to do after?”

“I think I’d like to be a ghost, one that farts. Can you do that with me?”

Yes, Jim, yes I can. I can’t wait to spend the rest of eternity, gassing it up together. Thanks, Mr. Pratchett, I think…

Comments on How a deceased fantasy writer helped me explain death to my 4-year-old

  1. “I think I’d like to be a ghost, one that farts. Can you do that with me?”

    I’m crying with laughter right now. This was a great post, thank you.

  2. I believe the conversation with Death about what happens next happens in Small Gods, at least. I’m pretty sure Death has that conversation multiple times.

      • Chiming in that the conversation takes place several times- the idea crops up often but one of the funnier ones is the results of the potato religion in ‘The Truth’.
        Bill Door from Reaper Man is probably my favorite character from Discworld. I wish I had an abridged copy of the book that only had the Death/Bill parts because the rest of the plot is a bit much for casual non-fantasy readers and I want to share the Bill Door part of the story with everyone in my life. I love the quote about how the future may be uncertain and dark and terrifying, but here and now there is the harvest.
        And now I’m going to have a cry.

        • Considering that Reaper Man was my first (and last for several years!) Pratchett novel, I concur.
          I’ve changed my perspective since – shy about 4 books from the entire Pratchett body of work.

  3. My husband is a HUGE Terry Pratchett fan and has gotten me into them as well. Through all of the books my favorite characters (in no particular order) are Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Tiffany Aching, Susan (Death’s granddaughter) and Death. How Pratchett explains the anthropomorphic personification of Death has helped me face my own fears of my inevitable end and that of my husband and parents. Which I hope is a LONG LONG LONG ways away. A being that is fascinated by life and can’t understand it but tries. Is present at the death of the greatest kings to a lowly sea slug. Ushering life into whatever it’s afterlife may be. A being that respects life and, in some cases, greets you as a friend taking one last trip. For those who haven’t read his last book, do. The death is very…touching and bittersweet.

    We both cried when he died. I have been sad at the death of a favorite author or actor, but never to the point that the loss of their work was felt so acutely.

    And given all the news today (and so far this year), this quote keeps reverberating in my head:

    “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.

    Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.

    The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.

    Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.

    We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people.

    In the teeth of those stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.

    We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” -Richard Dawkins

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