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JmacOroni's avatar

Atheist parents : how did/do you explain death to your young child?

Asked by JmacOroni (3283 points ) March 24th, 2011

Was it as simple as saying “this person is not here and they are not coming back?”
Did you go into detail, maybe on a scientific level?
Are there comforting phrases or thoughts that you share with them?

For parents that have not yet dealt with this, how do you plan to help your children understand when they suffer their first loss?

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16 Answers

AdamF's avatar

My five year old and two year old daughter lost their grandmother a few months ago.

As biologists we (my wife and I) often look at dead animals and explain to them that for a variety of reasons an individual may die and that death is like it was before being born or in a very very deep sleep…no thoughts, no memories, no sights or sounds or anything. Nothing scary at all.

In this case we said that grandma had died, but she lives on in our memories. Her body will become other life. It is sad, but part of the cycle of life.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I’m not a parent yet, but I think I might explain it in terms of our memories. The dead person doesn’t know anything, so nothing bad has happened to them. We are sad because we are the ones who have lost them. If we focus on the memories we have of them, and remember the good times, then we can appreciate the time we had.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I’m a believer in honesty. They were with us yesterday, their body stopped working, and now they are no longer with us.

Seelix's avatar

Depending on the age of the child, something as simple as what @Adirondackwannabe said could suffice. If a grandparent dies as a result of a heart attack, for example, Grandpa’s heart was old and sick, and it stopped working, so now he’s not with us anymore. But we’ll still remember him in our memories and in pictures we have of him, so it’s not so bad. Grandpa was sick and his body didn’t feel good, but now he’s not sick anymore.

It really depends on the situation and on the relationship of the loved one – there are a few different books out there designed to help kids deal with death. Although I can’t think of any specific titles, I know that there are some which take a Christian point of view while others take an atheist point of view. If you’re thinking about how you’ll deal with this conversation, take a look at some of the books at the library or bookstore.

cak's avatar

I’m not an atheist; however, when my father passed away, we were pretty upfront about the entire situation. First, my children knew my dad was dying, but when he had his stroke, it through us all for a loop. That is not what we thought was going to happen. We explained what a stroke was and when he passed, 3 days later, we told them his body couldn’t fight any longer. He was gone.

Yes, our religion picked up at a certain place, but that is how we told our children.

AdamF's avatar

@Seelix The parenting beyond belief book has a whole section on this issue, and it’s a useful/enjoyable book overall.

http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com/

bolwerk's avatar

Maybe it’s more important to just be careful about what you don’t say. It’s unfair to pollute children’s minds with silly ideas about heaven and the afterlife, given the improbability of such things being possible. (And if they turn out to exist, I don’t see what harm it does to leave that stuff out. They’ll know when they die!)

flutherother's avatar

I don’t know if I could manage an explanation, but kids usually just want reassurance and I was able to give them that. My kids in return gave me reassurance when I encountered death.

JmacOroni's avatar

@Seelix I’m not planning on having this conversation any time soon. As most of you know, I’m not a parent, I’m a step-parent… so teaching things like this is not my place. Just curious how other parents deal with this sort of thing.

Rarebear's avatar

I believe in being honest. I say, “he died.” I don’t say “he’s gone to a better place” or “he’s passed on” or “he’s no longer with us.” Children are remarkably resiliant in how they handle things like this—much more than adults, I’ve found. My dad died and then my wife’s dad died. We told my daugher (then 8 years old) and her comment was, “Well, no more grandpas!”

Ron_C's avatar

Our grandchildren lost their great grandfather, last year. Our grandson (Sam) was five and he loved his great grandfather. He never asked where his grandfather went but I would have probably told him that his grand father is in heaven. Since our Sam still believed in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I didn’t see the problem of adding one more myth to his belief system. He later (now he’s eight) understood that death is the end but just a natural condition and his great grandfather lives on in his memory. So when he wants to talk to his great grandfather he just calls him up from his memory and imagines what “Grandpa Joe” would say. Sam seems o.k. with that, and Grandpa Joe will never be gone completely. I still miss my dad too.

Rarebear's avatar

Just to add on my prior post, my dad died when my daughter was 5 and I told her he died. She was okay with it.

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Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Are there comforting phrases or thoughts that you share with them?
Why bother with that? In that dispensation just tell them the departed no longer exist, so they are not ”looking down” on them from anywhere, not watching them form the beyond. All they are now is an empty meat husk that will decay like the pet rabbit that died, all a part of the cycle of life; certainly nothing to be sad over. You are here (for whatever reason), then you are not.

Uberwench's avatar

“Why bother with that?”

Because being sad about death isn’t a religious thing? When people die, we miss them. Maybe even more when you think you’ll never get to see them again.

“In that dispensation”

Yeah, I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

“just tell them the departed no longer exist, so they are not ‘looking down’ on them from anywhere, not watching them form the beyond”

A child who misses their grandmother probably isn’t scared that she’s looking down on them. They’re sad that she’s gone and won’t be seen again. Is that really so hard for you to understand?

“All they are now is an empty meat husk that will decay like the pet rabbit that died, all a part of the cycle of life; certainly nothing to be sad over.”

Why is it nothing to be sad over? Sure, that’s the way things are. And sure, we have to learn to live with it. But atheists can still miss people and be sad about death. Just because something is a fact doesn’t mean you have to like it. Again, I’m not sure why this is so hard for you to understand.

“You are here (for whatever reason), then you are not.”

For no reason, actually, unless you want to count causality as a reason (instead of just an explanation).

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

@Uberwench Because being sad about death isn’t a religious thing? When people die, we miss them.
No, I can’t speak for all religions, it maybe to some to feel sad. If you are a Believer then it is more of a celebration than sadness because unlike others, we know we will be reunited one day. When one goes before their family and friends it is the same, only by the account of atheist, they will never know they are gone to miss anyone they left behind. So, seeing they are gone off to wherever, why treat it any different than them going off to a far of country where you know you would not see them again? That, to me, would be more logical in missing them, because you are still in contact at least by email and such, not that they just went ”poof” and were unable to ever be contacted again.

A child who misses their grandmother probably isn’t scared that she’s looking down on them.
It is not about them being afraid grams is looking down on them, it is more that grams is no longer anywhere to look down on them, so the notion she is ”out there somewhere” would be a useless concept.

And sure, we have to learn to live with it. But atheists can still miss people and be sad about death.
People marry and move away, go off to college, etc. and they are missed because the day to day connection is broken, that would seem more pertinent then spending time being sad because of death, even though the separation is permanent, death was just the event that made it happened, one should miss the day to day that is no longer there and not so much that it was because they leaped off into the great white zephrum or oblivion.

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