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JLeslie's avatar

If you believe there is nothing when you die: would you stick with that explanation of death if your young child were terminally ill?

Asked by JLeslie (60533points) April 1st, 2012

If you had to comfort and help your very young child through a terminal illness and death, would you want to tell them more of what you think is a fantasy about what death is like? I say fantasy not to criticize or be dismissive of religious beliefs, but only from the persepective of those who don’t believe in afterlife, they would view heaven and other related explanations as untrue.

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47 Answers

Blackberry's avatar

You can treat it like Santa if you want: if it makes them happier that would be all that matters. No one wants to watch a kid suffer.

Ron_C's avatar

I suspect that I would make up stories to comfort my child. In fact, that is how the bible came about.

creative1's avatar

I would talk to the child and find out what they believe and then go with it. One thing I would never do is take away someone elses belief especially if it is such an unknown.

JLeslie's avatar

@creative1 I would think the a child looks to their parent for the explanation. As a child I had no clue where you go when you die, never thought about it, until one day we drove past a cemetary and I asked my parents about it. I was 8 or 9 Ithink. I never really heard about death before that.

digitalimpression's avatar

I certainly wouldn’t use an atheistic point of view to usher them into… well… nothing.. from that perspective. That’s a bleak thought even for someone who isn’t terminally ill.

Revelations 21:4
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

I, personally, don’t believe in “fantasies”... especially the one about how human beings have everything figured out.

ragingloli's avatar

Yes. I would.

JLeslie's avatar

@digitalimpression I don’t think most atheists see it as a bleak thought from an adult perspective.

amujinx's avatar

I would let know the various things people believe is after death, and let them choose for themselves.

digitalimpression's avatar

@JLeslie Could you explain this “adult” perspective? Because I see it as bleak. Very bleak indeed. But I guess I am “a child”.

JLeslie's avatar

@digitalimpression What I think, or should I say assume, is that you believe there is a life after death, something after death.

flutherother's avatar

No, that would be cruel. It is certain that your love for your child will continue after death and that is all a child wants to know.

digitalimpression's avatar

@JLeslie Ok, now you lost me. I already know what I believe. I was asking what isn’t bleak about the atheistic, “adult” perspective… since you said you don’t think they see it as bleak.

ragingloli's avatar

We were born from a star, we were part of all life on this planet for millions of years. We were fish, insects, mighty dinosaurs, graceful birds, ferocious lions, thundering elephants, lush trees and beautiful flowers and after death, we will once again be part of all the life on the planet. And in 5 billion years, we will return to the star. It is rather poetic, but it is true. And it is not bleak in the least.

tom_g's avatar

EDIT: Stupid me. I’m exhausted and misread the question. Sorry.

JLeslie's avatar

@digitalimpression My point is you do not fit the criteria for answering the question. I don’t see it as a bleak, I see it as nothing to worry about bevause life just ends. But, this Q is not about how an adult feels or views their beliefs about death. If you already believe in life after death, of course you think children should be told there is a life after death. @Blackberry said above it is like Santa Claus, I think that is more accurate to how atheists would look at it. An ok story to help the child, even if we don’t really believe it. I don’t know for sure most atheists would feel this way, so that is why I ask the question.

JLeslie's avatar

@tom_g I don’t believe no atheists in a foxhole either. I don’t know exactly what you are talking about? I am not saying a parent changes their belief, is that what you mean? I am talking about the child who is pretty much a blank slate. You can tell them whatever you want. A few children might have their own thoughts contrary to what theor parents tell them, but most will go along with what their parents tell them at such a young age.

tom_g's avatar

@JLeslie – I’m a stupid slob who didn’t read the question correctly. Sorry. My coffee has not yet kicked in. I’ll come back when my brain wakes up.

What would I tell the kid? Anything. Anything at all to ease his/her pain and comfort them. Man, I hope I never have to go through this. I don’t have the strength for it.

JLeslie's avatar

@tom_g No problem :)

digitalimpression's avatar

@ragingloli That paints a pretty “divine” picture.

@JLeslie You should run for office… I’m not sure what it is you said.. but it sounds like you’re answering my question.

dappled_leaves's avatar

It’s difficult to imagine myself in that situation, but from what I know of myself, I don’t believe I would lie. I assume that to that point, I wouldn’t have been telling him stories about a mystical afterlife… wouldn’t the child become very suspicious? The last thing I would want is for my child to think I was making up a story because the truth was going to be worse.

JLeslie's avatar

@dappled_leaves I answered your question, you never answered mine.

Coloma's avatar

We have no real idea of what happens after death, therefore it is ALL a “story.” The story of something vs. the story of nothing. Yet, these are only stories, not fact. I would tell my child, depending on their age and ability to understand the concept of “mystery” that dying is a great mystery, that we return to the cosmos and our energy lives on in fact and memory, and that dying is a great adventure for great explorers and what comes next is not to be feared but to be embraced and excited about.

JLeslie's avatar

@dappled_leaves Oops, that was meant for @digitalimpression. Sorry for the mistake.

@digitalimpression So? I told you nothingness is not bleak to me, it is well, nothingness. No pain, no awareness, no knowledge we once existed. Do you believe when we die there is nothing, but find that bleak?

josie's avatar

Little kids do not have to make life decisions influenced by their belief in fairy tales. If they are going to die before the reach the age where they must make such decisions, I figure you can tell them anything you want. They won’t be harmed by it. If it makes their circumstances easier, why not?

Cruiser's avatar

I have my own near death experience I would share as it was a beautiful experience that I look forward to one day making the crossover completely.

Sunny2's avatar

I would base my response to the child on what the child believes. Many will not have experienced death and will only know they are sick. I would read to them, reminisce about good times you’ve had together and be there to comfort them if they hurt or feel rotten. If they are aware of death, I’d talk to them about what they know or think about it. Have them think of a place that they would like to be or invent their own ‘heaven.’ If they ask if they are going to die, I’d say they were very sick, but we certainly hope they won’t die. I think you have to play it by ear. You certainly aren’t going to say, “Yup. You’re gonna die and that’s the end of it” no matter what you believe.

augustlan's avatar

I think I would go with the lovely image of ‘we are all stardust’, and that her beautiful energy will still be in the world with us, maybe growing a fantastical tree.

Jeruba's avatar

Never having been faced with such a situation, I don’t really know. I think I would talk about being part of the earth, part of all that lives, both before we are born and after we die.

We do indeed know what happens after death: organic matter breaks down and is recycled into other matter. I don’t find this bleak at all. I like knowing that the earth makes good use of our substance by channeling it into new growth and that even when my consciousness ends, the part of me that has always been here will remain.

Going with what the child believes strikes me as a very strange idea. What does the child know but what we have taught him? I would expect a child to be alarmed by the notion that an adult expected him to supply the answer.

Sunny2's avatar

@Jeruba I don’t agree that all the child knows is what we taught him. It depends on the age. Toddlers know what we teach and what he learns about anywhere he visits. At 6, I learned from a five year old friend that Jesus was in a little box on the altar at the Catholic church. It was the beginning of my skepticism. I knew Jesus couldn’t fit in a little box. I never mentioned it to my parents. Children pick up a lot of information and misinformation a very young age. Heaven was never a subject at my house, but I could have learned about it elsewhere.

creative1's avatar

@JLeslie Actually alot of kids are more perceptive than we know and having gone through family dying at an early age I kind of had my own ideas of things. I would ask questions, but ultimately I would make my own mind up about what I believed. I as I said I would talk to the child and go accordingly. No one knows truly what happens after we die so no matter what we say to them it may still be an unintentional lie. I think making them as happy and comfortable when they are already facing death at a young age is not going hurt them at all but yet have the opposite effect and provide them comfort where there is really isn’t much of it around.

Jeruba's avatar

Do those who say “No one knows truly what happens after we die” honestly believe that the human body might behave differently from any other organic substance once its source of energy is cut off and life processes stop? Do you not think it decays?

digitalimpression's avatar

@Jeruba I think it’s painfully obvious that we’re not talking about that dried up husk that is our human body when we discuss an afterlife.

Jeruba's avatar

I don’t equate “what happens after we die” with “afterlife.” If you assume they are the same thing, we’re not on common ground.

The OP asked “If you believe there is nothing when you die.” I took that as a reference to an afterlife (and in fact she specified “from the perspective of those who don’t believe in afterlife”) and am answering in that context.

wundayatta's avatar

I don’t think children are any different from adults when it comes to our understanding of dying. In fact, from many stories I’ve heard, it seems they might have a more mature attitude about it. Some people call them “old souls.” Whatever.

I would simply be honest. I think this is the way I could be most respectful to a young person. I’m not going to lie to them. I’m not going to pretend to know things I don’t know. I’m going to let them have my honest thoughts and feelings about losing them and let them figure out what they want to figure out about death.

Really, most children I know have some pretty clear ideas about death. I’m not going to tell them they are wrong or right. If they want my thoughts, I will provide them. If not, not. This is the same as any other individual of any age.

As far as I’m concerned the most helpful thing I can do to a child is to treat them as a full person. I will not condescend to them. They always know when adults do that anyway, and anyone who thinks they can fool a child is fooling themselves. The kids pick up on this instantly, and then it puts a burden on them to protect your fantasy that they are kids and can’t think sensibly. They have to play into it. Not nice. But many adults are scared to death when it comes to death and think they are protecting children when, in fact, they are only trying to protect themselves.

dappled_leaves's avatar

^ Yes, I agree with this.

SavoirFaire's avatar

“Accustom yourself to the belief that death is nothing to us. For all good and evil lie in sensation, whereas death is the absence of sensation. Hence a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding infinite time, but by ridding us of the desire for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in living for one who genuinely grasps that there is nothing fearful in not living. Therefore he speaks idly who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful in anticipation. For if something causes no distress when present, it is fruitless to be pained by the expectation of it. Therefore, that most frightful of evils, death, is nothing to us, seeing that when we exist death is not present, and when death is present we do not exist. Thus it is nothing to either the living or the dead, seeing that the former do not have it and the latter no longer exist.”

If death is non-existence, then it is irrational to fear it. If it is irrational to fear death, then there is no reason to change one’s story just because you are speaking to a terminally ill child. Life is a wonderful thing, and we should do all we can to live good lives while we are alive. We will all have shuffled off this mortal coil someday, however, and there is no sense in ruining what time we have with worries about the fact that it will end.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@SavoirFaire Yes! Wonderful!

My only quibble with the Epicurus quote is that I still have a desire for immortality – not because I fear death, but because I want more time here to learn and to experience.

ninjacolin's avatar

“You’re screwed kid but have a good life.” :)

cazzie's avatar

I actually had this conversation with friends of mine. A good friend of mine had a son go through leukemia, not once but twice and it was only a perfect cord blood match that saved his life. Through this friend, I have met others who have lost small children to this horrible cancer. I am an atheist, but I would tell my kid ANYTHING to ease their pain and death. I hope I NEVER have to face that (tearing up as I write this) because I have seen the toll it takes on a family and on a mother.

MollyMcGuire's avatar

I would be sure my dying child knew that death is not the end, only the end of life on this Earth.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@dappled_leaves I think that Epicurus would respond that having a desire for immortality while knowing that you cannot attain it is only likely to cause pain. He could perhaps agree, however, that there is nothing wrong with being disposed to accept immortality should it be offered to you so long as you do not long for it in vain in the meantime.

Bernard Williams, on the other hand, has given some interesting arguments about why immortality would actually be unbearable. There are only two options, he says—we become bored with a world that stays the same, or get lost in a world that constantly changes. That is to say: if the world is too stable, we will simply become bored and lose our desire to live (there are only so many times we can do the same thing over and over again); but if the world is too varied, we will either be left behind (as the world becomes increasingly foreign to us, and as our loved ones pass away, we will simply be unable to cope with life) or we will change so much as to have functionally ceased to exist (constant adaptation to change will cause us to functionally cease to exist as our tether to the past snaps and an entirely new personality takes over what was once our body). I am not yet sure what to make of these claims.

wundayatta's avatar

The problem with telling someone anuything to ease their fear of death is that until you say it, you don’t know what will work. If you lie to them about your own beliefs, they will probably detect that, but they may not call you on it so as to protect you from your fears about their death.

I really think it makes most sense to be completely honest and to allow the child to hear conflicting points of view. The child needs to be able to trust loved ones most of all, and if you lie, they will catch you, and not be able to trust you at this crucial time in their life.

ninjacolin's avatar

^ I was just coming back to post something like that:

Who knows how a child will react to anything you say. Every child is different. You could choose any of thousand made up stories about the afterlife.. how do you know which one is going to succeed in settling their concerns? And hey, what if another stories would settle their mind way more than another? How do you know which one will do the best job?

ninjacolin's avatar

^ i don’t know how I write so poorly sometimes. I swear I read it over and edited stuff but somehow there it is.. lol

Paradox25's avatar

Well I already do ‘believe’ there is something, an existence alot greater than this one, awaiting us when we pass on. My beliefs come from the evidence I’ve researched over the last ten years along with personal experiences, not because of religion or faith. Even if I didn’t believe in life after death (yes there was a time when I didn’t) I still would try to comfort the child by telling them that heaven awaits them. I can’t see why anybody wouldn’t try to comfort a dying child in this situation.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Paradox25 We would want to comfort the child. What we deny is that lies are an adequate way of doing so, particularly when honesty is not nearly as unpalatable as those who are afraid of death maintain.

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