I need help explaining death and religion to my child.
August 2, 2013 2:19 PM   Subscribe

An older family member has died. We'll be traveling to attend the viewing and funeral, which will be heavily religious. My 7-year-old daughter didn't know this family member, but has reacted very negatively to the idea of death in the past (long stretches spent sobbing in my arms). We are agnostic, with one of us leaning heavily towards atheism. I could use suggestions on how to talk with my little girl about these things.

My main concern is how to help her cope with this death. Should I avoid bringing her to the viewing? What can I say to help her deal with her sadness and fear? I've felt utterly helpless in the face of this before. I don't have easy assurances and answers to give.

She has been a little preoccupied with death since Neil Armstrong died last year. It was the first time she really understood what it meant, and it hit her hard. I haven't worried too much about it, thinking kids tend to be morbid sometimes.

She has run across the idea of heaven before, and I've responded that we don't really know what happens when a person dies; that different people believe very different things; that some people believe we go to heaven when we die. Do I just reiterate this?

This month, she has been telling me she is going to live forever. I responded that everybody dies eventually, but some people believe that science will help us to live longer and longer, and some people think that some day people will be able to live forever.

She hasn't been exposed to the ideas of god, "heavenly father," prayer, etc. I'd like to explain these things to her in a compassionate, respectful way before the funeral, while still honoring our own (lack of) beliefs.

Twisted up in all of this: I've been at a loss as to how to deal with family when they start trying to convert her, and I'm a little concerned it will start here. This hasn't previously been an issue because of distance and youth, but this religion baptizes its children at age 8. I have a deep resentment against religion that I haven't been able to shake, and I'd like to be able to deal with this with kindness but firmness.

Sorry about the rambling question. I'm grateful for any help.
posted by moira to Religion & Philosophy (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me I would not involve her in this one especially given she didn't know this person and the religious aspects. It's a lot for her to take in and since she didn't know them it seems like unnecessary trauma. Plenty of 7 year olds have wacky ideas about things they haven't seen and that's ok. She has plenty of time.
posted by bleep at 2:27 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What exactly is it about death that she is afraid of? Is she able to tell you?

I don't know what culture you guys are, but in Anglo culture children get cues from adults that death is scary and terrifying. Someone dies and all the adults are sobbing. Adults sobbing is pretty scary thing for many children, so it must mean something bad. Your parents set careful limits on your life because they are terrified of you getting hurt or dying. So dying must be something terrifying.

It might help to expose her to other cultures where death isn't viewed that way - in person if possible, or in videos or pictures.
posted by cairdeas at 2:29 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: She didn't know the relative. There are likely going to be parts of this funeral that are going to be long and quiet and require her to sit still for stretches of time. I vote for don't take her to the funeral.

She can stay home/at the hotel with whichever parent isn't directly related to the deceased, and then all of you can attend the (I don't know what the technical term for this is, so I apologize for the crassness) afterparty together so that the relatives can see your daughter, which they will surely want to do.

I was seven when my grandfather died. I don't remember anything about the funeral except that my mom and uncle and grandma were crying and that I saw my dead grandpa in his casket. I do remember getting passed around the extended family and family friends at the afterparty, but it just seemed so divorced from the actual funeral proceedings that it was like two entirely different functions.
posted by phunniemee at 2:30 PM on August 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I wouldn't take my 7 year old to a viewing, personally.

To me the death and religion discussions are related, if you do decide it's time to talk about it. My girl is pretty sophisticated, so I've explained something along these lines:

Because nobody really knows what happens when our spirits leave our bodies, people think about it a lot and some of them get quite scared by not knowing. People make up explanations and ideas about those things, and some of them get very complicated, and include deities, afterlives, and rules about how people ought to live. Some of these folks get so much comfort from these beliefs that they get very uncomfortable with people who don't share them, but we don't live that way.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:33 PM on August 2, 2013 [12 favorites]

Is it possible for your daughter to stay with someone else while you travel? It seems a lot harder to sort out the death of someone you don't know than someone you do. With someone you know there are fewer imponderables, just regular sadness to deal with.

With my six year old, she reacted with much more confusion when we found out the local grocer had died (we'd interacted with him several times, but didn't really know him), than when her great-grandmother died. With Great-Grandma, she had memories of her, and wanted me to tell and retell stories about her, and just remember her and be sad together. And though I brought her on the trip for the memorial service, she spent the service in child-care, and just participated in the rest of the family time together. (But we didn't have a problem with any of the religion going on, so that made it easier.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 2:33 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my parents was taken to an open casket funeral around this age, and said that it really bothered them to see a dead body all painted up to look....less dead. In my opinion, it is not something that kids should be subjected to, especially if they are sensitive.
posted by thelonius at 2:33 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: I'd like to explain these things to her in a compassionate, respectful way before the funeral, while still honoring our own (lack of) beliefs.

If you decide she should go to the funeral: In my own family, my mom is very religious, and my son's caregiver when he was a preschooler was also very religious. We are, like you, at least firmly agnostic. We have always approached this topic from the viewpoint of "no one knows what it is like to die. Some people believe some part of you survives death, and other people don't believe that. We can never know for certain who is right and who is wrong."
posted by anastasiav at 2:34 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm all for normalizing death (insofar as that's possible in our particular culture), but I do feel like these particular circumstances would be pretty difficult to do that -- she didn't know the relative; she's in a phase where death is actively a disturbing abstraction; the rituals/discourse around this funeral will be very unfamilar to her. All of that means I think this would be highly confusing and upsetting for her in a way that's likely to be pretty counterproductive to your (great) attempts to help her through this phase. So I vote for minimizing her participation as much as possible.
posted by scody at 2:35 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I didn't seriously consider the possibility of one of us not going, but staying with our girl instead. Is this done? To be honest, the trip will be something of a financial and physical hardship, but I wanted to support my husband by being there with him.
posted by moira at 2:37 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: I didn't seriously consider the possibility of one of us not going, but staying with our girl instead. Is this done?

In my experience, it is. When I had great-grandparents and great aunts/uncles who died when I was small, one parent went and the other stayed home with the kids.
posted by scody at 2:38 PM on August 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Of course it's done. It just depends on if your husband needs you there with him. If it was his parent or a beloved grandparent who had died, I'd say you should go. If this is more about him paying his respects, then he may be fine with you staying home.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Alternatively, can you find a babysitter, either local to your home or local to the funeral? Maybe there's a teenage member of the family who would like an excuse to skip the whole thing, or a family friend? I have to say I wouldn't take a seven year old to a formal religious funeral, let alone to visit an actual dead body.
posted by emilyw at 2:42 PM on August 2, 2013

I found a viewing mildly traumatizing just a few years ago when my grandfather died (you could see the stitches on his lips! GAH). But people don't attend funerals for all kinds of reasons--I only went to the funerals of one of my four grandparents. If you don't go, it's probably entirely acceptable.

Also, I really think a funeral is a terrible place to be exposed to organized religion for the first time. (Maybe start looking into local Unitarian kids' RE? Despite being raised in the same religion as you're talking about and rejecting it utterly, I've always appreciated understanding the cultural context of Christianity, and I feel I'm at an advantage compared to my husband who was raised in a nontheistic household with no secular RE. I wouldn't choose to grow up in that religion again if I could do it over, but I would want to get familiarity with religious ideas and literature somehow.)

I'd say talk to your husband and see if he'll be all right on his own. Good luck!
posted by wintersweet at 2:42 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: I feel bad jumping in without reading through all the responses first, but you really hit a nerve for me here. I was raised in a somewhat religious household, so death was not presented to me as the end, and today I am a happy atheist who does not believe in any conscious afterlife and does not fear death.

However, when I was your daughter's age, an elderly relative whom I did not know died, and my mother (for good reasons - my father was out of town) brought my sister and me to the viewing. We asked to see the corpse and my mother complied with our request.

And I had nightmares for literally years about it. And I can remember having major crying fits every time I thought about death. And I would torture myself with the idea of being buried alive, which horrible fantasy was fostered by awful stories in the press as I was growing up.

There are really great ways to explain death to kids, but my parents didn't know any of them, and the only thing they could say was "You won't die for a long long time." That didn't work for me. I don't know if the good ways of explaining would have worked for me either, even though they're very satisfying to me now and, as I said, I have no fear of death and in fact have been extremely comfortable around it since I was in my early 20s (my chosen volunteer work is as hospice caregiver). I don't know what brought about the change, but I have a strong suspicion that I didn't need the nightmare-inducing stuff to reach the place of happiness and peace in which I now dwell.

I really encourage you to keep your daughter in the dark and as far away from this as you can, given her reaction to the very thought of death.

You could check with the family and see if they are arranging for childcare (our family has always had childcare for weddings and funerals), but if, as is suggested above, you can just leave her home and not have her deal with it at all, the scared little girl inside me says please do so.
posted by janey47 at 2:52 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I was nine, it meant a lot to me that I was allowed to see my great-grandmother's funeral and go to her casket. I had to beg to be allowed to do it, but my parents were won over. Of course I cried at the service and I was upset, but I behaved and I was very grateful to go. Her body didn't scare me at all. It was simply final.

If your daughter expresses that she wants to do it, I suggest following her lead. It doesn't say anything negative in the least if she doesn't, of course, but I think that keeping her away if she did want to go could strengthen her anxieties about death.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:53 PM on August 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

My very Catholic and Baptist grandparents were all born in the 1890's. They all died in the mid 1970's when I was 7-10. My agnostic parents stuck to "Nobody really knows what happens when you die." I say you stick with that.

I remember the viewings vividly. They were food for thought and not traumatic. Bunch of cousins to play with. We got really close because we kept getting thrown together while the adults were losing it.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 3:29 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's my husband's beloved grandmother. We've decided to travel as a family, but not bring our little girl to the funeral.

Thanks so much. More answers/stories are still welcome.
posted by moira at 3:36 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try searching the AskMe archives — this kind of question has been asked many times before. Example.
posted by John Cohen at 4:13 PM on August 2, 2013

Yeah, at age 7, for someone the child didn't know, it'll be better if she doesn't attend either the funeral or (especially) the viewing.

I doubt there'll be adults actually 'sobbing'; it's more probable that they'll be mostly stoic with maybe a couple of people quietly crying to themselves --- over-the-top emotion is unlikely, since the lady was obviously elderly (as a great-grandmother, I'm guessing at least 80ish) and her passing couldn't have been totally unexpected. People tend to get more flamboyantly emotional with the deaths of young people or sudden/violent deaths.

Still, it WILL be an intensely emotional experience, probably too intense for an already-worried little kid. Is there any way you could leave her at home? Say at a friend's house for a sort of extended sleepover?
posted by easily confused at 4:30 PM on August 2, 2013

I.come.from a religious family. if there's one point that should get through their thick skulls, its that kids need to obey mom and dad, a maxim which translates into respect and deference toward the parent/child relationship. tell them flat out that they're not to proselytize to your kid and they should take it seriously.
posted by jpe at 5:11 PM on August 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of the answers here are jumping right to the human (Western, Christian) preoccupation with the question of an afterlife.

Maybe what she needs is grounding in recognition of death as a natural state, something that happens to everything living. We tend to catastrophize human death, but actually death is simply the natural outcome of biological process. At the level of the web of life, death is needed to release energy and resources, and to make room for new life. Death is normal. Death is often a release from old age and suffering. Her great-grandmother had a long life and will be remembered with love.

You can help make death normal and OK for her. Because it is.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:12 PM on August 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm *so glad* you decided not to bring your daughter to the funeral! My son also had a horrible time with the idea of death at that age. Even a few years afterward we all went to the memorial service for my husband's parents (not funerals; they died across the country, six weeks apart; the funerals were held there; this was just a lot of people talking about them in a rented hall) and he ran out of the room -- couldn't handle the sadness.

I so agree with people who've posted that they were traumatized by having to go to these things as children.
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:32 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: When my daughter was 3 1/2 our dog died and she witnessed it firsthand (she was sitting in the back seat of the car with her), so the topic of death obviously was discussed. I have no idea where I heard it/read it, but I told her to think about what it was like before she was born because "that's what death might be like." At the time it seemed to resonate well with her.

Discussion of how a person lives on through all the people they touched and all the things they did while they were alive may also be helpful.
posted by laze at 6:47 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: I am very sorry for your loss. My grandmother passed away about six months ago, and even though I'm an adult and she was ill for a long time, it was still very difficult for me. Your husband, especially, has my deepest sympathies.

I tend to disagree with the idea that you should absolutely not take your 7-year-old to the funeral, or at least the visitation - she doesn't have to approach the open casket, but being in the room isn't necessarily a bad thing . I grew up in a Catholic funeral home, and I think that exposure to the entire cycle of life was a gift my parents gave me. But everyone makes their own decisions for their own kids, and if you think it would be upsetting to your daughter, then you should make that decision appropriately for her and for your family.

However, for a resource about discussing the idea of death in general, I recommend Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children. It is a beautifully illustrated, completely non-religious, and just a lovely book. A friend brought us a copy a few weeks ago when my husband's father passed away, and it made a difference even in how we talked to our younger children.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 8:46 PM on August 2, 2013

Best answer: When my grandmother died and we attended the visitation and funeral, I explained to my daughter who was 5 at the time that she might see adults crying and/or upset and that it was perfectly okay and normal, and that she might feel like crying or want to cry and that was perfectly okay to do also. I also explained that death was a part of life, and that we would always have happy memories of grandma. She would be alive in our hearts.
posted by cass at 8:06 AM on August 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Tough call on the funeral thing - you know your own kid, so I'm inclined to say your decision is correct just on those grounds. Seriously, very tough call, and it's impossible to predict whether it'll work out the way you want; I suggest you be prepared for wacky paradoxical reactions (like screaming "WHY DIDN'T YOU LET ME GO," when it was clear two days ago that going was a terrible idea.) I recommend that you use the time Dad's at the funeral to do something nice for him. Maybe make a cake or a card or something else that he'd find comforting. Kids love being useful, and it takes it away from "you were too fragile to cope with this" and into "I need you here so we can do a good job on this helpful thing." Empowerment, etc.

As far as the larger religion and death stuff, I grew up on both sides of one big divide on all of those issues (specifically, I was raised simultaneously UU and Mormon.) And there are few suggestions I have, for now and in the future:

Focus future "death" discussions with your daughter on separating out and exploring "what do we actually know for sure," "what do we hope is true," and "what do a bunch of different people think." One fruitful way to explore funerals and the deaths of important people is to say "what do funerals, and what different people do at them, teach us about how they think we should live our lives?" Or, "Neil Armstrong knew he could have died when he went to the moon - why do you think he went there anyway?" Or "what do you hope will happen after you die?"

If she asks what happens at funerals, etc., show her some videos of tributes to living people. It sort of creeped me out how funeral-ish this particular video ended out being, for instance (but only because the man is still alive.) There are tons of speeches out there about how awesome so-and-so is; most of them are perfectly well-suited to be eulogies. You could also read the euglogy for this great-grandma, etc. Heck, Nixon had a speech ready in case Armstrong really did die.

Don't use phrases like "they make up stories" when talking about other people's belief systems - this is a gross oversimplification of the psychology and history of religion, and by the time I was 9 years old every time someone said it to me I automatically wrote them off as the exact opposite of wise and open-minded. Nothing made me Mormon quite as firmly as obnoxious UU kids repeatedly demonstrating their own intellectual and moral superiority over 5 billion (or so) other human beings, which is what I heard when they used that particular set of words. I suspect this was in part because I had actually met clearly intelligent human beings whose belief was clearly genuine.

As far as shutting down the conversion thing: leverage the fact that your in-laws are members of a "believer's baptism" tradition. If they're Mormon, Anabaptist., etc. it means that they believe you must choose to follow Christ freely, that you have to do it competently and with full knowledge of what it means (which includes being old enough,) etc... So, tell the relatives that "I'm OK with [daughter] getting baptized if that's what she really wants, and if she really understands everything that comes with it, and if she truly believes in all of it. I believe that this kind of attempt at training her, let alone an actual baptism, needs to wait till she's a little older than eight years of age, and as I'm her parent and have the responsibility for her spiritual upbringing, I need you to accept and honor my position on this." If you toss in the words "I am grateful you love her and want her to be a strong, happy, and good person," you will get bonus points. Seriously, if you don't think God will reward you, let me know you did it and I'll send you cookies.

Be careful with your use of the word "know," and teaching her to use it to judge other people. The second she tells a 9-year-old Mormon kid that they "don't really know" that God is real, that we live after death, or whatever? The best case scenario is a world-class hissy fit. LDS kids (along with most other Judeo-Christian group kids) are raised to know that they know these things. Literally, we sing songs like "I Know My Father Lives." The question of "how do we decide whether we know something or not" is probably really worth exploring, anyway, since you're calling yourself agnostic, which is literally about the nature of knowledge itself. I strongly recommend teaching her not to blithely say "you can't really know that's true," at least, because it can become a fighting words situation and that's totally unnecessary. If you're finding this idea really abhorrent, put it in the exact same category as training kids not to teach their classmates that Santa isn't real.

Lastly, re: resentment - I suggest you sort this one out, hard core. What pisses you off? How were you mistreated? In what way was religion used as a tool against you? What good things come from organized religion and spiritual practices more generally? What are some things you can do to turn this resentment around into "yeah that was annoying but I'm over it now"? Because a big part of why my dad and I can't talk about religion at all is because it makes him really angry and afraid and just generally upset to talk about it. I haven't seen him as a guide on spiritual matters since early elementary school, and his behavior was part of what pushed me closer to my mom's religion. I'm grateful for it now, because (oh hey look) I know I'm in the right religion, but it made things crappy between us and it made a lot of my childhood and adolescence really difficult. In particular, when I wanted to be baptized his response was to send me to a therapist. This was bad for lots of reasons, not least how it put Daddy And His Henchman The Therapist against God.

Oh, and if your in-laws are LDS, I suggest you lay out the beliefs of the church in a straightforward manner before you end up in a funky situation where they're telling her specific things. This document was written for journalists, for instance - most of it is above the head of a young kid, but the tone is close to what you should probably be striving for. You may also want to get books like How To Be A Perfect Stranger, and other how-to guides on respectful-but-not-really-believing behavior. If your local UU RE program is anything like mine was, the book will be more helpful.
posted by SMPA at 3:44 PM on August 3, 2013

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