A few months ago, my mother's dog died. He was 16 years old, blind, senile, and incontinent with such bad arthritis that some days he couldn't walk, so as an adult looking at the situation, I was comforted by the fact that he wasn't suffering anymore.
My four year old daughter, however, was not.
"What's going to happen to him?" she asked me as we were at the emergency veterinary clinic (he just happened to take his turn for the worst while my mother was on vacation and I was dog sitting).
As an atheist myself, sharing the child-raising responsibilities with a Baptist co-parent, I had no idea what to tell her. I have been sitting quietly on my beliefs, not vocalizing them to my daughter, as not to offend the rest of the family, as well as trying to avoid confusing her. Everyone else may tell her that God is great, but if her own mother tells her that there is no God, then how could a four year old reconcile these two ideas?
So, the dog was lying on the clinic table, and we were saying our goodbyes, and my daughter asks "What's going to happen to him?"
I sighed. "He's going to die and go to Heaven," I told her. Immediately, I regretted saying that. Immediately, I realized that I, the only person in her family who is capable of reason and critical thinking about tough subjects such as God, just lied to her, which is sure to confuse her even more in the long run. Sure, I had good intentions. I didn't want my daughter to be sad. I wanted her to feel like her beloved friend was going to a better place. But did I do her any favors by feeding into this delusion?
No. I wish I had told her the truth. That when the body dies, all the chemical and electrical impulses stop, the body begins to break down and decompose, and eventually, the tiniest particles of our previous forms become something else, like a flower, another animal, or even another person. I wish I had told her that there are no souls, but our deceased loved ones will live on forever in our memories, and even though they aren't here anymore, we can take comfort in the fact that they knew we loved them.
I wish I had taught her how to really cope, so in the future she would be prepared, instead of just handing off the job to some imaginary deity.
I feel like I failed her in that instance. This was possibly the first time that I should have really rose to the occasion as an atheist parent, and I blew it.
This was a learning experience for me. Next time, I will allow myself to take a breath and tell my daughter the truth. Next time a tough subject comes up, I will give us time to talk it out together, so as to encourage her developing critical thinking skills. Next time, I will leave the childhood indoctrination to her father, where I can't use myself as a shield to block the nonsense coming in her direction.
Next time, I absolutely will not rely on God to do my job.
(This was copied from my personal blog www.skepticallysara.com)