Ages 6-9

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

Tori Parker

Tori is a high school English teacher from Ohio (insert cheerleader kick here)! She is emphatic! She is skeptical! She is nifty! Her boyfriend says that they can get a potbellied pig someday and name him Bacon. She has a little boy whose pseudonym is SC, although he has recently asked that his name be changed to Henry. When asked for a comment to add on this bio, he asked, "Why do we sound like a bad '70's cop show?" So there's that.

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  1. This is lovely. I think you handled it perfectly.

    I used to tell my kid (when this came up, as it did!) that (1) she wouldn’t die for a very long time, and (2) one day she would not be so afraid of dying. I’d tell her how I was terrified of death when I was young, too, but that it had become less and less scary the older I got.

  2. I take the same approach.
    When my oldest was three years old, my grandpa died. We were very close ( I miss him violently to this day, I still can’t write this without tears in my eyes and it’s been three years since) so she really knew him well, so she was sad and shocked about this. But what probably hurt her even more was the fact that we had “lied” to her before. She had four great-grandparents and since we didn’t reproduce young they are all well in their 80’s, my paternal grandmother being 92 by now. This means that they often spend some time in hospital and my grandpa was famous for needing a bit of hospital pampering every few months. So we told her “grandpa is in hospital, he’ll be out of it in a few days, nothing to worry about”. Because that was what we believed, too. But he died and from that day on it took her a long time to believe us again when we said that things would be fine. Afterwards many people tried to tell her some nice stories (and that in a family of atheists), that now grandpa was somewhere where he’s well again, where he can breathe (he has COPD)…
    I told them to stop it. Because I had seen how the “lie” that he’ll be home soon hurt her, so I didn’t want to abuse her trusst anymore. And yes, I told her that the people we love are with us in a way because we’re still thinking of them. Worked wonderfully with her. The little one at 4yo is right now terrified of changes. She’s afraid that we will die, but she’s also afraid that one day she might have to move out, or that her sister might move out.

  3. We had a very similar situation with the Schmoo when she was about 6. She became very anxious about death, with very specific fears about being “alone in the dark forever”. We found that talking about what it felt like before she was born was enough of a twist in her frame of reference to assuage a lot of her fears. The fact that both the Girl and myself lost a parent before the kids were born was also a helpful subject to talk about.

  4. My kids aren’t the slightest bit worried about their own deaths, but they’re very worried about my death. Weirdly, whenever he asks we end up planning what to do with my body when I die–my son and I decided that I would be cremated and put up on a shelf, and when Mr. S. dies he’ll get a green burial (with my ashes in tow). Then they’ll plant a tree and we’ll be “in the tree” as our bodies help it grow. Now he’s worried about how to stop kids from climbing on us once we’re a tree.

    Weirdly, having to talk to my kids about death makes me less scared of it myself.

  5. My son (6) is also more afraid of our deaths. We watched Superman (the Christopher Reeve one) and he burst into sobs watching the opening scenes, with Superman’s parents sending him away when he was a baby. It was difficult to handle because MY biggest death fears are of others dying, not myself, and I still haven’t completely come to terms with that, honestly. All I could do was reassure him that we weren’t going to leave him, but I couldn’t honestly say that we weren’t going to die because we will and I have no idea when that will happen.

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