Ok, I know I'm a little young to be asking about this, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.


I don't have any children, (nor will I have any for a long time), But I wanted to know your thoughts on how to explain death to a child from an atheist perspective, without scaring him/her.


When I was a child, my dog died and my parents said that he went to heaven and he was in a better place next to god. Of course, at the time, that made me feel better. Since I was looking at it like that, it didn't seem so bad.


However, how do I gently explain this process to a child, in a way that it doesn't fear death and understands it.

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There's a lot of good advice about this sort of thing on associated, secular Web sites.  But, in my experience, kids readily accept the idea that life (self-conscious life) is a rare, precious, and passing gift, and that when it ends it ends the way all life ends, with a return to elemental conditions and materials.  The certain fact that consciousness is a product of the individual being only makes it all the more wondrous and valuable, because when it's over it's over. 
Thank you for your reply. This advice will help me in the future
The only part of this I don't agree with is saying life is a gift.  It is an amazing miracle to be sure, but a "gift" implies a giver.

But Dave, to characterize life as a "miracle" is surely not apt or accurate.  Rather, that usage is a fuzzy cliche.  It's a threadbare hyperbole we use too often to express the awe we feel when seeds sprout or newborn babies bawl.   But life is no miracle, not at all.  Life is wondrous, yes, but it's also ubiquitous, profoundly ordinary, and (so far) ineradicable on this planet of ours.  And it has been for quite a long time.  Life is a gift to the individual in the sense that it has been bestowed on a person's conscious form by happenstance--against enormous odds.  Each life is the gift of chance. 

As Richard Dawkins says, "We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?"     

My experience is much the same as Dan's.  I think a lot of people project their own emotions and concerns for death onto children, but those feelings are predicated on a lot of preconceived notions and expectations that children don't yet have.


I was probably somewhere around five or six when I really started considering death.  Neither of my parents were religious, so I didn't get an afterlife story to placate me, but then I didn't really feel the need to be placated.  I never expected to live for all eternity prior to that point in my life.  I really didn't expect anything one way or the other.  I hadn't been giving it much thought.  When I found out that after death there was nothing, I wasn't pleased, but neither was I traumatized.  The thought that I would some day simply cease to be was a little unsettling, but it was also very abstract and hard to conceptualize at that age.  I was more concerned with the fact that one day, my parents and my brother would no longer be with me, but it was reality.  It didn't occur to me that I should fight against reality, so I just accepted it.  Don't think I even lost a single night's sleep over it.


I have a tangentially related anecdote here, though I may be a little off on the details given how young I was at the time ( the gist is the same).  I remember being at a theme park when I was really little.   My family and I were waiting in line for a ride that I'm pretty sure I had been on once before on some prior date (or one very much like it).  Waiting in line I felt perfectly fine until one of my parents asked, "You aren't going to get scared, are you?"  Suddenly it entered my mind "should I be scared?"  Within moments, I didn't want to go on the ride because suddenly I was doubting everything.  


The point is, I was perfectly fine until the idea of fear was planted into my mind.  I can't say for certain how I would have reacted to the ride had I not backed out, but knowing how I was back then, I probably would have been just fine. Obviously we want to shelter children from objective harm, but when it comes to experiencing life and reality, I think it's better to let them feel it out for themselves while offering a bit of support and guidance where needed.

the explanation I was given was that death was like being asleep, but without the ability to wake up.  It wasn't terrifying, and it wasn't something to look forward to.  It was disappointing, in that (to a child) I could never read another dinosaur book or have another bowl of ice cream; but that was the end of it.

"I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it."

Mark Twain

About 4 months ago, our two cats 'played' with our hamster. (Yes, I know that cats and hamsters don't mix!! But, we didn't realise that a bit of the play tunnel had become loose.) Needless to say, 'Snuggles' wasn't so snuggly afterwards and we had to have her put to sleep. Anyway, I was sorely tempted to give my 7 year old daughter the whole heaven lie. I just didn't want her to be sad.


Fortunately, Snuggles' adventure happened while she was at school and although the hamster was intact (no visible damage) she was most definitely dead. I had also had time to think about what I wanted to say to my daughter when she got home. (The heaven lie just wasn't going to cut it.)  So, after I picked her up from school, I sat down with her and told her what had happened. I also explained that it was very much like Snuggles was asleep except that she wouldn't wake up again.


Then I asked her if she wanted to see Snuggles before we buried her. (I wouldn't have offered this if Snuggles wasn't completely intact, if you get my meaning.) She held Snuggles for a minute and then asked what was going to happen. I told her that we would bury Snuggles and suggested a nice sunny spot just in front of the house. I also suggested that we could put a flower in with Snuggles just as something nice to do.


I also explained about how when things die that their bodies change and become part of the earth. (Do I sound like a complete hippy or what? LOL) I said that as Snuggles' body changed, it would help the flowers to grow and so it would almost be like Snuggles became a flower or a patch of grass. She seemed to accept this and we buried Snuggles in the sunny spot. After that, she started checking the spot for flowers every day when she came home from school.


About two months ago, I bought a small potted flower and planted it in the sunny spot while my daughter was at school. She was so happy when she saw the flower and still checks on the Snuggles flower regularly.


This was the way I handled it and I am really glad I didn't 'cheat' by giving her the fairy tale story of heaven. I struggled too long with religion myself and really feel like the upset of death would be far less painful than the struggle she would face if I opened the door to the fairy tale world of religion. She's too smart to have gone her whole life believing in religion anyway, so why confuse her? ;-) Hope this was helpful. :-)

Steph you are an awesome thoughtful Mom!!!   


In 2003 I was in the ICU and someone who knew I had undergone emergency surgery for a blocked bowel asked me 'but what would have happened had you died?????    All I could say was 'I would be dead'.  


Which made me think then and ever since, why do people ask such obviously silly questions?

Your daughter is lucky to have you in her life.

The explanation I gave when asked about where we go when we die was, We go back to the same place we were before we were born. There are no bad memories of that place and the kids thought about it for a little while and we came up with the best things we will ever know will come from what we do with our lives here. Kids are cool.

Sometimes kids do or say things that knock you on your ass. I am not a biological parent, but my better half has a wonderful 3 year old. Today, she told daddy that she hopes he dies. These were of course the careless words of a child, and in no way meant to be hurtful. I reiterate, sometimes these things knock you on your ass. I lost my cool and told her that what she said was not nice and that when a person dies they go away and never come back. Well I certainly scared her, and hurt her feelings. I felt horrible and stupid afterwards. My point is, you can't always plan for these things, and being involved in the upbringing of a child is a learning experience.


Also, Steph, yours is a really wonderful story. I love the flower bit.

Sometimes I think people underestimate what a child is capable of understanding and often feel the need to sugar coat or give everything a happy ending. In my experience, as a mother of 3 (13, 7 and 3), being very honest about things is the easiest may to talk to children. I'm not talking about gory details or anything, but a simple understanding of the fact that life ends. Sometimes it is tragic and unexpected and almost always its sad. Every child is different. Some will question what happens next, some wont give that detail a second thought. I encourage questions if they have them. My kids haven't really been exposed to much religion or theories about god, so they don't tend to ask questions about heaven, etc.


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