Updated: Jul 13, 2022
I wrote this a long time ago, when my son was 8. It's a poignant story about a little child's grief and how I had to truthfully explain death to my son while trying to ease his grief.
Life will always give us opportunities to practice our values and learn some lessons we need to grow. The following article is about one such opportunity for me to practice Satya or truth and honesty in a situation where I would have done anything to soften the blow of pain and suffering of a most special person to me – my son.
My son was heartbroken. In August 2013, his pet hermit crab died.
One evening, he and his father inspected the shell and though the eyes had sunken, they thought they saw a bit of movement. There was hope, little though it was that the crab was just molting. Of course we all knew this was false hope; we know how the process works. But still we decided to wait till the next day to make up our minds.
On the way home from school the next day, and after chatting for a bit about school, he finally asked about his pet. Though normally chatty, I think he was stalling the question until it became unbearable. I asked if he really wanted to know right then; we were still a few minutes from home. In his mind, I think he wanted to know what he was coming home to.
Not one for lying, I gently told him that Shelly was, indeed, dead.
As we passed a twiggy bush of tiny, white, rose-like flowers, I casually mentioned how I liked them as an effort to divert his mind. He said Shelly would like them too and broke off a twig saying that it would mark where we would bury the crab. This was a glimpse of my son’s quiet inner strength and his own simple way of practicing Satya though he didn’t know it in those terms.
He fell silent until we reached home but every time he would catch me looking at him, he would breathe deeply, smile pressed-lipped and lift the corners of his eyes. But there was strain in those big, bright and normally joyful eyes that told me he was trying his best not to cry; to keep it together until we got home.
It was a relief to finally drop the bags on the carpet of the entrance of the apartment. He burst into tears and reached for me.
All I could do…all we could do was to stand there wrapped in each other’s embrace until he stopped enough for us to walk into the living area. We went through the motions of our afternoon routine. Again, he was stalling. Feigning remembrance of the flowers we picked, and I took it as a signal that he was ready, he scooped Shelly up and we went out to the courtyard. I asked him “Which pot?” knowing that he wanted to bury Shelly in a pot so that
we could take him along with us should we move again.
He chose one with the Japanese maple. Fitting, I thought, as maples and crabs go through regular shedding; we would never forget where Shelly was buried. I dug a hole while he cradled the crab in his palms, as he had always done; then it was time to put him in. I suggested taking the small crustacean out of the shell but that broke my son’s heart even more. Tears were streaming down his reddening cheeks while shaking his head and trying his hardest to say “no”.
So it was that Shelly the Hermit Crab was laid to rest with his shell by the roots of the maple. We went inside, sat on the sofa while he cried some more. Every time he could speak he would ask me “why?” Why did Shelly have to die? Why did all his hermit crabs die? Why does anybody have to die? I said the only thing I could say: my Satya, my truth, my honest answer. I don’t know why. I don’t know why Shelly died; why his previous hermit crabs died.
But I said that death is part of life.
We all die eventually but that doesn’t mean we’re lost. Our love and memories keep our loved ones part of us; our bodies go back to the earth; if we're spiritual, we can believe our spirits return to the energy and web of life. We are not lost, just changed. But here’s another truth: I would take away his pain if I could but I know this is something he has to endure and learn from. All I could do, all I can do is be there for him; hold him in my arms until he was ready. Hold him until his body stopped shaking because of his crying; until he can breathe easier and find his strength once again.
4 Tips on how to practice Satya with Ahimsa
When we are called to speak the truth, in any situation, I invite you to consider:
The appropriateness of the timing. Too early and emotions can still be too raw for any information to get through. Too late and the relevance might very well be lost.
The language you use; make it appropriate for the person & situation you are talking to. I talk about death to my now 18 year old son differently from when Shelly died when he was 8.
Again, check-in with your own intentions for speaking this truth; where is it coming from? Prioritize kindness, compassion and empathy to guide the process.
It's ok to stand up for your own values in situations were your own truth is being questioned. But remember, everyone has this right as well.
My rule of thumb with Satya / Truth is to balance it with Ahimsa (non-hurting) and Asteya (non-stealing). We should endeavour to mitigate hurt and pain and not just blurt things out in the name of telling the truth, and we don't want to "steal" someone's joy or wellbeing in the act of telling the truth nor "steal" the truth from them by hiding it.