Explaining Death to Kids, Atheist-Style
The routine to get the 6-year old to bed is usually the same. He showers, gets his jammies on, and crawls into bed. His dad or I read to him while the kitten walks up and down the bed, purring, and then we hug him and kiss him, and close the door.
One night, though, it didn’t end there.
After we got through the bedtime routine, I settled in on the big, fluffy blue chair (I have to get to it before boyfriend does, or he’ll steal it and I’ll be forced to sit on the prickly couch), threw a blanket over me and opened my book. Before I had gotten through one page, I heard sobbing coming from the kid’s bedroom.
There is something in me that immediately reacts when I hear my kid cry. Not the “I didn’t get my way and now I have to take a shower” cry, but the actual, heartfelt cry. I sprang up out of the chair, throwing my book off somewhere in the direction of the dining room, and tore into the kid’s room with speed that would rival the Olympics dude with the prosthetic leg. Panting, (okay, that’s a lie, the kid’s room is directly next to the living room and I’m not THAT out of shape) I scanned the room, looking for intruders/my ex-husband/a rabid dog/a stuffed animal that had come alive, and saw nothing. I looked at the bed and saw the kid sitting up, his head in his hands, shoulder shaking.
Slightly pacified at the sight of my child still breathing and not in immediate moral danger, I slid onto the bed and put my head next to the kid’s. “What’s wrong, Buttercup?” I asked him. (Buttercup is not his real name, in case you’re curious. It’s one of the nicknames I’ve chosen to call him so that I can embarrass him when he’s in junior high. I also like “ButtChunk”, “Backfire” and “Pumpkin Jelly”).
He looked up at me, eyes glistening. Then he let out a wail. “I’m so scared! I can’t stop thinking about it! When I die, there’s NOTHING!!!!”
My heart lept into my throat. Immediately, I thought of the empty reassurances my mother had told me when I was his age and was worried about the same thing. God will hold you in his arms. I’ll always be with you. You’ll live forever in heaven. For a moment, I wished I could reassure my son in the same way. It would be so easy. He would smile, and cuddle up with me, and drift off to happy sleep.
I wanted to make it all better — but of course, I couldn’t. As an atheist parent, there is a stark truth in front of all of us, and lies aren’t going to make that truth go away. If I was raising my son as a true critical thinker, I would be doing him a disservice if I gave him lies about life after death and a greater power.
Gently, I held my son, and I acknowledged that it was a scary thought. But then I talked to him about what a long, long life he was likely to lead. I talked about how I’m still alive, and my mom is still alive, and my MOM’s mom is still alive. I spoke to him about the quality of life, and the legacy that we can all leave. I asked him about famous people from long ago that he knew about, and he mentioned some names (mostly old presidents; he’s on a presidential kick) and I said that they were still alive through their words and deeds.
It was so hard. I couldn’t assuage his fears, really. Death IS death, and that’s scary, and if I think too hard about it, I could lose sleep, too. Sometimes the span of forever seems so vast that it takes my breath away. But what I could do was change his way of thinking about lifespan, and legacy. If we leave something behind, then a part of us never dies.
Whether it was the cadence of my familiar voice or the brilliant words I spoke (or, if I’m being completely honest, just pure exhaustion), he closed his eyes and fell into a peaceful sleep. In the morning, he didn’t mention anything, and I didn’t bring it up, figuring that he would talk about it when he was ready.
This was a few weeks ago. Just this morning, he was sitting on the prickly couch while I sat in the comfy chair (victory!), and he turned to me and said, “Mommy? You know that people don’t really die if they’re in our hearts. As long as someone remembers them, they’ll always be alive.”
We talked about it, and his words made me smile. Something I said got through to him. He kind of made it a cheesy greeting card, but at least his brain has started to come to terms with our brief existence on this planet.
Now if only someone could help me…
image by minifig