Explaining death to baby atheists
April 3, 2012 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Atheist families: how have you talked about death with your small children?

My child is young, so I'm only just starting to hear questions like, "So, where's your grandma?" For now I've said, "She's not around anymore, but her name was _______."

I'm not sure if I should introduce a mystical idea (up in the stars, the energy of the universe, etc) and gently remove it later, or if I should just stick to the facts. If so, then which facts? I'm not sure how to explain discarding a no-longer-working human body.

For what it's worth, we haven't used any magical/mystical ideas in our household as yet: no Santa or fairies or leprechauns. My child is aware of monsters, ghosts and leprechauns as creatures that are book characters but not real. At this point, he doesn't even know that other people might believe in these things as real.
posted by xo to Human Relations (29 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
My grandparents died when my son was 5. He was close to them, and went to the funeral.

I didn't use any mystical explanations. When he asked what it was like to be dead, I told him I didn't know. But I asked him what it was like before being born, and told him I imagine it was like that.

I just stuck with the facts as I knew them. It seemed to go pretty well.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:58 AM on April 3, 2012 [36 favorites]

Not the same, but in our agnostic family we've been talking to our kid about our dog's death since he was about 2.5. He asks about still a year later.

We say "Roarky's body was broken and we tried to fix it but we couldn't. So he died and now his body is part of the earth and helps to feed all the plants."

It is working for us now.
posted by k8t at 9:00 AM on April 3, 2012 [17 favorites]

I think it started by expanding on dead bugs. Lots of discussions of biology and how the body works have made it easier to understand that things can go wrong.

We went to see Jack Layton's lying in state and this led to some discussion; we have a small cemetery at the end of our street that is pleasant to walk through, gentle exposure is good, I feel; less of a shock when a grandparent or family pet dies. If somebody famous I think she will be familiar with later dies I usually discuss it and show her the news.

If you don't believe in any mystical ideas I wouldn't go that route; that would be pretty painful to discover that you'd been lied to in that way, I feel. As for 'which facts' -- +1 Pogo_Fuzzybutt.

Daughter is 4.5 and I thought she had a good grasp but I found out last week that she had an idea that while everything else would be rotting in the dirt when dead, she would still be thinking. I said some people liked to think that, but also explained that the brain dies too. I have tried to explain (respectfully, skeptically) other peoples' belief in a soul and some other concepts, so maybe that confused things.
posted by kmennie at 9:12 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just kind of tell mine the facts: When the neighbor died, I explained he'd gotten very sick because of X and that the doctors tried to help him but they couldn't. She was fine with it (although a few weeks later someone stopped by to see him, & having her shout to him that he was dead was probably not the best way for him to hear about it).

I also sometimes talk about my grandfather, who died while out on a walk. She was curious about that, & I gave her what I know. She clearly remembers what I told her, and is putting it into the big picture.

Mainly, though, I think the idea is to talk about what death IS (the cessation of the body), what we do about it (eg put them in the ground & add flowers), and offer some reassurance that death is usually something distant, in time & occurrence for us, since the main concern that crops up seems to be whether it will be happening to her, or parent or friends anytime soon.
posted by Ys at 9:15 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

oh, mine's 5, but we started these talks around 4.
posted by Ys at 9:16 AM on April 3, 2012

We've pretty much gone with "nobody knows what happens to people after they die". They know what happens to bodies, and they know that some people believe that they have spirits that go to heaven. I've been open that I don't personally believe that but I haven't tried to push a belief onto them one way or the other. They seem fine with not knowing.
posted by crocomancer at 9:17 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Judith Viorst's The Tenth Good Thing About Barney is a really good children's book, written from a secular perspective, about a child who loses a beloved pet.

Julia Sweeney talks about explaining death to her young daughter from an atheist perspective in her show Letting Go of God.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:31 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

We're only half atheist.

At around 3 we started explaining death (I think it was about bug) as a broken body that couldn't be fixed. He'd broken his foot when he was 2 so he got that sometimes bodies can heal themselves, and that death was different.

We got the same question about his greatgrandma (who we have pictures of holding him as a baby), and we explained that she was very old and her body couldn't take care of itself anymore, so she passed away. We keep the pictures of her, because it's important that we think about what a good person she was, and celebrate that.

He brings it up from time to time, but mainly in the context of food. We eat meat, so we explained that for us to get the meat something had to die, and that's why we treat our food with respect (don't waste it, take care preparing it, etc.).
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:59 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't remember how it came up in the first place, but we stressed that NO ONE KNOWS what happens. You can only have beliefs, not knowledge, about what happens after death (as far as the existence or non-existence of an afterlife).

I wanted to stress that many people have many different beliefs, and most people have very strong beliefs that they are right, and that what they believe is the factual truth.

He didn't ask specifically what I/we believed, so I didn't bring it up (I'm an atheist). I'll tell him if he asks.

He did ask more about what different people believed, so we told him about a variety of beliefs. And I will say, he was immediately FASCINATED with the concept of reincarnation - he brings it up ALL THE TIME.

Sometimes he talks about it like a foregone conclusion ("When I die and I'm born again, I hope I'm your baby again and dad is my dad . . .") and sometimes he ponders it ("If people really do get born again after they die, I hope I'll be a person and not a worm.").
posted by peep at 10:00 AM on April 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

We've used the word "died" and explained no one quite knows where people go. Other people introduced heaven though and my son seems to like that, and I don't feel like I need to argue about it with him.

All that said this is an amazing book for a (perhaps) slightly older child (good to have around). It is sadly out of print: http://www.amazon.com/The-Death-Book-Pernilla-Stalfelt/dp/0888994826
posted by Zen_warrior at 10:46 AM on April 3, 2012

Oops sorry here's the hot link.
posted by Zen_warrior at 10:47 AM on April 3, 2012

I'm not sure when we first talked about it with our son, who's now 4. We've got pictures of late grandparents and such around the house, and he's asked about them, and seems to accept that death means you're not around any more. He's never really asked about where you go, or what happens though, so we've never really got into the 'some people think this, some people think that' thing

But when he asked how they died, and we said that it was that they got very old, and everyone dies when they get very old, he had some sort of existential crisis, and vowed that he never wanted to grow up because that means his mum and dad will get old and die. So we sort of cocked it up I suppose.
posted by ComfySofa at 11:09 AM on April 3, 2012

I tell my five year old that there are many different theories about what happens when we die but nobody knows for sure.

I've read him books that talk about what different people believe and then explained that Mommy and Daddy believe that when we die, our bodies break down and we become part of the Earth so in that way, parts of us continue to live on and out souls live on in the memories of people that we know and love.

We also added that he may choose to believe something completely different than we do. Right now, he believes in reincarnation.
posted by Pollfabaire at 11:34 AM on April 3, 2012

From a child development perspective, what you say can be helpful but as you can see in some of these stories, is not determinative of what's in your child's mind. It's hard for us, as adults, to reconstruct the intellectual world of children at any given point, and kids go through phases of animism, of a narcissim that does mean that you can never imagine yourself dying, of this idea that one can control aging and death, etc. It's fine and adaptive for many of these ideas to come and go - they will go - even as you offer a rational explanation.

Be aware, though, that though you are atheists that doesn't necessarily mean you have a "baby athiest," as your child might adopt another worldview, or many more, before his life is over. My parents were comfortable saying "I don't know; nobody knows. I believe... [etc.]" and this was troubling in many ways, but honest. They also made it clear that they rejected the constructs some of my friends are relatives were offering ("Your family is all going to hell!") which introduced comparison and questioning to me at an early age. But it was nice that I didn't have to be afraid of bringing those thoughts to them for discussion.
posted by Miko at 12:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Comfy, I'm not so sure you cocked it up. What makes death hard to talk about is that it so potently affirms our affections and loves, and an honest look at death means accepting that one day you'll up your life for good. I think a kid will be best served in the long run if they learn to accept such a difficult fact. There's beauty in it too—I feel the awareness of death has made me hold life more dear. It's key to let them go at their own pace, both with requesting information and forming their opinions.

Lil' bug is 2 and a half, and she knows our elderly cat will not be around forever. We've told her that, and she repeats it once in a while matter of factly. She hasn't yet asked where the cat will "go", but when she does I guess I'll talk to her about the dead mouse we recently found in the woods. She was quietly fascinated in a way that made me think she has some inkling. She's been coached to be gentle with bugs to not hurt them. As she gets older, I hope death discussions will dovetail with talks about injuries and the importance of safety for yourself and others.

I guess the hard question is what happens to consciousness. I would hesitate to compare the cessation of consciousness to sleep, not wanting her to develop a fear of bedtime, but I'm not sure how to talk about it. She has never been exposed, to the best of my knowledge, to the concept that some people believe it's possible for the consciousness to continue on when bodily function stops.

Maybe I'll just ask her what she thinks and go from there.
posted by maniabug at 12:43 PM on April 3, 2012

^ give up your life for good
posted by maniabug at 12:47 PM on April 3, 2012

I can give you the child of atheistic parents experience: I was told death was the end by my fiercely atheistic mother when I was 6 and my grandfather had just died. That his heart had stopped working. That there is nothing after death. That people stop existing. It was mind blowing. I had to deal with this abstract entity of non existence. It was great. I am very thankful that she didn't try to assuage the enormity of it in any way as I was a very "grown up" sort of kid and hated having issues infantilized for my benefit. The only downside was that I spent the summer killing off flies in my grandma's kitchen to verify the transition from existence to non existence despite the puzzling evidence of a (dead) body. Grandma appreciated all the swatting so it wasn't that bad. These days I am more of an agnostic for reasons of intellectual flexibility but (not very) secretly believe my mother was right.

The next obvious step was realizing that my parents could also die. I wasn't spared on that one either but was comforted by statistics and optimism.

(before that the death of pets hadn't been existential question inducing for some reason or another - mostly goldfish which are hard to anthropomorphize, I guess)
posted by lucia__is__dada at 12:54 PM on April 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I would hesitate to compare the cessation of consciousness to sleep, not wanting her to develop a fear of bedtime,

Yes, this is something strongly recommended against in talking about death with children. This handout has some decent suggestions and a bit of a rough developmental framework, it's not too bad.
posted by Miko at 1:12 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

This website has books for talking about death with children. Barr-Harris is mostly for helping children deal with grief & loss but I think the FAQ is has a lot of good info.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 1:21 PM on April 3, 2012

I would hesitate to compare the cessation of consciousness to sleep, not wanting her to develop a fear of bedtime,

WHATEVER YOU DO DON'T COMPARE DEATH TO SLEEP. Child of atheist mom here. She told me death was like going to sleep and never waking up. O_o I'm pretty sure that was one of the triggers of my lifelong, severe insomnia.

I'm sure that was probably a careless remark made by someone who didn't know quite how to explain death to a young child without resorting to the "angel in heaven" religious argument. Just letting you know that however you choose to explain death - it's a mystery, we don't know, the person/pet is helping fertilize the earth, or what have you - leave sleep out of it.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:51 PM on April 3, 2012

I second (or nth) The Tenth Good Thing About Barney. My atheist dad used it on me, and I'm pretty sure it still informs my feelings about death. In a nice way.
posted by freshwater at 1:55 PM on April 3, 2012

Tell them the truth as you see it - but also tell them what other people think without judging those people. Kids can easily understand "This is what we believe, but some people think ____". If not you are setting yourself up for a future "child 2 child" conversation about the subject when you are not around. And a follow on conversation with you starting with "Jimmy knows what happens when people die and he told me -----."

It's better to be aware of and accepting of other people's ideas early in life. This will also help when when it comes to Santa, Easter bunny, etc. when they will need to be careful not to ruin the magic for the other kids who want to believe...(but that is another discussion)
posted by NoDef at 2:09 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Heaven. Sure it's a cowardly lie and cop-out, but I found that my kids had already picked up the concept of heaven from the culture.

So they believe in a fairy-tale for a few years until they're older and can handle the concept of true oblivion. That's fine, as far as I see it.

Or, actually, until they are capable of making up their own mind about it. I look forward to the day when I can tell my own kids, maybe around age 10, that "Some people believe in god and heaven, yes. Daddy and mommy don't, because there is no reason to. Now you think about it and make up your own mind."
posted by zachawry at 4:07 PM on April 3, 2012

When my grandmother died, I told my then four year old daughter that she was old, and sick, and eventually she got so old and so sick that she wasn't alive any more. I used the same language to explain what happened to the bird that flew into our window: it got a big owie, SUCH a big owie that it wasn't alive any more. For whatever reason, the "not alive any more" phrasing really sunk in.

(and then, when the inevitable "Promise me it will be at LEAST a week before you die!" conversation came up: we took a long tape measure, and taped one end down, and started unrolling it, and marked the 0: "This is how old your baby brother is." Then unrolled it further, and marked the 4: "This is how old you are." Then unrolled it further, and marked the 12: "This is how old the kid next door, is." Then marked the 36 for Mommy, and the 42 for daddy, and then the 64 and 66 for grandpa and grandma, and then unrolled and unrolled and unrolled and unrolled and then got to the NINETY FOUR for great-grandma. That gave her a great deal of comfort.)
posted by KathrynT at 4:20 PM on April 3, 2012 [17 favorites]

I've told my children that different people believe different things. Aunty C. and grandma believe in heaven, V. from my work believes in reincarnation, M. believes that we go into the earth and the water and become part of everything and so on. I also say that nobody knows for sure, that they can make up their minds about what they would like to believe, and that we won't die until we are super duper duper old. Reincarnation is the big fave and they mostly want to be reassured that we aren't going anywhere.
posted by Cuke at 5:37 PM on April 3, 2012

Another really worthwhile book about death for kids is "the fall of freddy the leaf."
posted by Ys at 7:42 PM on April 3, 2012

I was raised Christian and I'm not a parent, so this is just a data point, not the kind of advice you were looking for.

I did have to deal with death when I was fairly young. My father died when I was four. At that age, I got what physically dead meant and I understood that that meant I would never see him again. The other parts of the adults' explanations, that people have an invisible part that goes somewhere when they die that we talk about as if it's in the sky, but it isn't really in the sky, that's just an expression we use, and you have one of those invisible parts too, didn't make any sense to me at all at that point. I just got 'not here anymore' and 'I won't ever see him again'.

So, based on what I remember about being a kid, I don't think mystical explanations of death are comforting to children. They may be comforting to adults who have wrapped their heads around the mysticism. Children are more concrete than that.

(Basically I'm agreeing with most previous commenters.)
posted by nangar at 8:50 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Here was my question on pet death a year ago.
posted by k8t at 8:50 PM on April 3, 2012

In Greg Egan's book Teranesia, a brother explains to his much younger sister the death of their (atheist, scientist) parents.

He tells her that "they have gone into our memories."
posted by edguardo at 5:58 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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