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AshLeigh's avatar

Nonbelievers: How would you explain the death of a loved one to a child?

Asked by AshLeigh (14576 points ) 2 months ago from iPhone

Obviously it’s easy to tell kids “They’re with Jesus” or “We’ll be together in Heaven one day.”

However, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, how would you explain it?

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29 Answers

sweet_star's avatar

First off, I am sorry if you just had a loss.

I am actually a believer, but I would start by explaining that we all get to be born and live a life as best as we possibly can. But then sometimes our bodies get tired/ warn out/ or we fulfill a mission here on earth, and so the same way we all get to be born; we all get to rest forever in peaceā€¦ and that although we can no longer physically see a person (or pet) we are still able to feel love for them and keep them in our memories.

I hope this helps ”)

Stinley's avatar

I would be open and say clearly that they are dead and that this means that they are not coming back (children often don’t get the permanence of death). I would say that we will be sad that they aren’t with us but that we have our memories of them alive in our heads. I would say that we should talk about them to keep the memories alive.

whitenoise's avatar

That’s why it is good for children to have short cycle pets.

To allow them to grasp the notion of death permanently taking away an individual from your world. Whether you believe or not makes it not easier or harder to explain.

To explain that grandmother is with Jesus isn’t an easier concept than to have to explain that grandmother left us for ever.

ucme's avatar

I’d imagine it’s a good thing to equate any pet deaths to this, or even an analogy based on the child’s old toys, people grow old & “break”
Kids are pretty clued up & will most likely get the connection in their own way.

stanleybmanly's avatar

Whether you believe or not shouldn’t matter. It’s the disposition and maturity level of the child which determines the approach one takes explaining death to a kid. Children (just as adults) differ considerably in their reactions to the grim but inevitable realities we all face.

cazzie's avatar

We don’t believe in my house and my son isn’t being lied to either. My son understood ‘gone’ when my father died and he understood the sadness I had. He was 4. He started hearing about heaven and hell from other people and I had to go through the whole, ’ Well…. SOME people believe…..’ thing. He is now 9 and knows that his farfar is really sick (he had another stoke this past week) and he knows that the life is slowly leaving him. There will be no ‘God’ talk at that funeral, so in many ways, it will be easier for my son to understand. He likes the concept of meeting his dead relatives later, who doesn’t, so he does a lot of imagining what it would be like and where it would be. But he doesn’t talk about Jesus or a ‘God’, he talks about the Universe and stars and black holes and dark matter, which I think is better because they are real.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

Kids think differently than adults. They go through stages like magical thinking, etc (Erikson). Their cognitive abilities are limited. When a child comes to you in grief, they want solace. They want to know that everything is OK. They want to know that these things happen and normalcy will return after the adults do their rituals. I keep it real simple. Whatever I believe is probably too complicated for this kid, and this is not the time for that conversation—the moment isn’t your’s to massage your ego by expounding on your personal dogma. It’s about a kid’s grief.

Knowing this, I have no problem at all telling them that the deceased is happy, out of harm, and surrounded by predeceased family members. I have no idea if that is true or not and neither does anyone else. I stay away from religious dogma, etc. I keep it simple. I don’t worry about the “truth,” because I nor anyone else knows what that is. I patch the wound, I stop the bleeding. I follow up if the opportunity presents itself. The kid will come up with their own rationalization as they grow up no matter what you tell them. They will be OK.

ragingloli's avatar

Put an raw egg on the table, and smash it with my hand.

JLeslie's avatar

It depends partly on the age of the child and how or why the person died. Mostly, I would be focused on the sadness the child has because of their loss. Isn’t that what it is for us adults too? We miss that person? The person is forever gone and never coming back. For adults we also worry about the life the deceased might have missed if we feel their life was cut short, but children don’t understand that concept I don’t think.

I am not religious, so I don’t really understand being focused on where the deceased has gone to after death. My focus has always been their life is over and if it was someone close to me, my loss of their presence, or the loss other people close to them are experiencing. If the person had been ill and in pain I would explain they are no longer in pain now. If the person died suddenly in an accident, I would reassure the child they are safe if they showed any signs of worry that an accident could happen to them or someone else they love. You can’t tell them accidents don’t happen obviously, but you can let them know this sort of thing is rare.

Mostly, I would follow their lead, see what questions they ask, and answer them with basic answers. I think it is fine if they see us sad and in mourning.

BeenThereSaidThat's avatar

I guess it would be hard to explain to a young child why (for instance) their beloved grandparent or parent died. Especially explained by a non believer. what a sad thing to tell a child without giving the child something to console his sadness. How selfish.

ragingloli's avatar

@BeenThereSaidThat
Better than telling them lies.

hominid's avatar

@BeenThereSaidThat: “what a sad thing to tell a child without giving the child something to console his sadness. How selfish.”

I’m assuming you didn’t forget the ~ at the end of your comment.

Maybe you could elaborate on why it’s healthy and moral to lie to children.

Stinley's avatar

@BeenThereSaidThat I don’t think that what you say is true – most people in this thread have included consolation in their replies and they have expressed sympathy for a child going through grief. I personally believe it can be harmful to say that there is life after death, just to console someone (adult or child). How you cope with death has little to do with your religious persuasion. I know religious people who are inconsolable until they die at the loss of a loved one and I know atheists who come out of the grieving process with their mental health intact. Research shows us that the people that do better are the ones that face up to the loss, that acknowledge the pain and work through the process of grieving. Whatever strategy you use, be that religion or psychoanalysis, the process of grieving is important.

GloPro's avatar

It does depend on the age of the child and the developmental stage. The last thing you want is to have a child that is afraid to fall asleep.

My sister included her 4 and 5 year olds in her studying when she was taking anatomy and physiology. She gave them the most basic of breakdowns about what all animals have inside… A brain, a heart, etc. she slowly introduced the idea that, just like batteries in a remote or a toy, that organs also have a battery life. They can just wear out. It seemed to help them understand a little better without introducing the fear that they would die.

I think it’s hard to do no matter what. Kids are so unique and get random ideas of things.

JLeslie's avatar

Selfish? That’s an unexpected description.

josie's avatar

The truth is often a good place to start.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I think truth is a bad place to start because, the truth is, nobody knows what comes next and the last thing this kid needs is uncertainty. The best place to start is with honesty. I don’t believe people end up in a dark cold place. I don’t believe they burn in hell forever. I don’t believe a child can conceive of “nothingness.” I honestly would like to believe that they are safe, happy, and with loved ones until the next go-around. With no data to the contrary, that’s what I will tell a kid. It’s what I was told and it kept me from the plethora of neuroses that I later saw in other children. So I expect it will work for a child until they are out of initial crisis and are willing to initiate a less emotionally fueled conversation.

zenvelo's avatar

Belief in an afterlife of any sort is no consolation for a grieving child. It still doesn’t explain why the person “left.” If I were a child whose parent or grandparent had died, and you told me it was because Jesus wanted them, my childish reaction would be “why is Jesus so selfish as to take my Grandpa away from me? He wasn’t Jesus’ Grandpa!”

An honest talk to the child about how all things die will do the child much more good than an attempt to console them with an afterlife.

If the person had been sick or in pain, it’s fine to say they are in a better place now, and no longer hurting. But if it was a sudden event, like a car accident, then telling a kid “it was the time” will likely scare the bejeebers out of them.

By the way, I have a strong personal spiritual foundation, I am not a “nonbeliever”.

BiZhen's avatar

i think it is terrible to try to teach children to believe in such absurd “gou pi” as life after death. I am a nurse, so I can tell what caused death. i can express sympathy for grief over loss as well.

AshLeigh's avatar

Just to clear things up: No one died, and I don’t even know any children. The question was entirely out of curiosity.

Thanks guys.

Darth_Algar's avatar

As a child I was quite sick and in the hospital quite a lot those first few years of my life. With my own serious condition and being around other kids with serious conditions I become acquainted with the notions of sickness and death quite early on. The remarkable thing about children is that they perceive, process and understand much more than adults usually want to give them credit for. If I had a child I would be honest with them about death. I would not try to placate them with comforting lies.

livelaughlove21's avatar

I didn’t read the other responses this time, so I may just be repeating what others said.

“He/She went to Heaven.”
“He/She is with God/Jesus now.”
“He/She is an angel.”

These are all cop-outs whether you’re a believer or not. Who are you to say that person made it to Heaven, if such a place exists? I don’t believe in lying to children because it’s “easier” for the parent. Pull up the big girl panties and explain death to your kids. Death is a part of life, get used to it.

I don’t know why, but this reminds me of the argument given by some parents that they don’t believe gay marriage should be legal because, “how am I supposed to explain to my child that two men are getting married?” Aside from that being a horrible argument against gay marriage, as it’s not anyone’s problem but your own, but why are people so scared of exposing their kids to the real world? Yes, let’s sugar coat everything so, when they find out the truth, they’ll know we’re big fat liars, or stupid.

ibstubro's avatar

I didn’t read many of the other responses either, so I might be redundant as well.

I would tell the kids that the person who died will never be there to make new memories with us, but that they are never truly gone from our lives as long as we are here to remember them. Don’t think of them with sadness, but with the feelings you had for them while they were here. If it was someone the kid was close too/ fond of. I tell them that they are one of the special people who have the best opportunity to keep that person’s memory alive, by remembering them fondly and often, and following a path that would make them proud.

Pandora's avatar

I am not a non believer but when my daughter saw a dead bird on the ground that looked like it had gotten attacked by a squirrel or some animal, she wanted me to fix it. She was almost 3 I think. I explained that I couldn’t fix it because it’s body was too damaged and it had died. She didn’t understand and I explained that some animal killed it and damaged its body so it could not breath or move any more. It was gone forever. The only thing we could do was bury it and let it go back to the ground the same way the leaves and everything in nature goes back to the ground. She cried but she understood once we buried it.

She said she hated the squirrel who killed it and I told her it was in its nature and probably protecting it’s nest. She was young and maybe sad for a day but kids bounce back. Luckily she didn’t ask about people or start to worry that it may happen to us, but I think she took comfort in my matter of fact approach. She probably sensed that it wasn’t a big deal to me so, she didn’t have much to fear.

My point is that, so long as a person is honest and straight forward and doesn’t panic, that a child will understand. Whether the person is going to heaven or you believe, isn’t going any where, the child will draw strength from the person telling them. There is no way to make it easy for them. Telling them the person is in heaven doesn’t make it easy for anyone. Especially not a child. If the person was close, the child will likely feel abandoned, lost and confused and will miss the person. They will also fear their own demise and have anxiety about losing others if this is the first time they have dealt with death.

If the person isn’t someone that they will miss, then they probably won’t think much of it. Maybe a few days but they will just carry on.

wildpotato's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Children can conceive of nothingness. I remember being in kindergarten and the teacher asked our class to draw each of the seven days of creation, starting with “In the beginning, there was nothing.” I had to think about it for a while but eventually came up with a cloud of many colors of squiggly, twisted lines. In retrospect my drawing was chaos more than nothingness – but our class of five year olds seemed to have a grasp on the concept; no one was nonplussed and we did not need to have a big group discussion about what it meant.

rojo's avatar

We use the “Circle of Life” type analogy. People live, breed and die and their offspring go on to do the same. Also, mention that if we did not die, the planet would be a stinking cesspool of human refuse by now.

cazzie's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Kids understand ‘gone’. I don’t live with uncertainty when it comes to death. I know we die and our bodies begin to decompose, like the bird @Pandora describes. We are gone and leave nothing but a carcass and memories impressed on those we leave behind. We don’t magically transport our consciousness somewhere else to live forever. We are cellular beings and when those cells stop their metabolic processes, we are gone. Worm food. My child will grow up knowing that this is NOT a dress rehearsal. Our life and our body is a one-shot deal. We take care of our body and our life accordingly. Our behaviour while we are alive is not ruled by the fear of some paternalistic, sadistic power, but ruled by the knowledge that we are finite and when we are gone, the only thing that will matter is what we have left behind. Because when we are dead, the show is over and the memories of us and the body of our intellectual work is all that will be left. The good news is, it is all up to you. The bad news is…. it is all up to you.

Seek's avatar

My son’s great-grandfather passed away when he was almost four. My son attended the funeral. We don’t tend to hide things from him. He knew Grandpa was old, that Grandpa was in the hospital and very sick. When we got the call, we all sat down together and talked about it. Grandpa’s sickness went from his leg to his heart and he died. His body stopped working and he is gone now. We will all miss him very much, and hold our memories of him very dear, and share them with each other. He will, almost two years later, happily show anyone the picture of him and Grandpa and say “That is my great-grandfather. He was my friend and he died. I love him”.

AshLeigh's avatar

@Seek, that is so sweet.

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