Dead and Gone … and Lied About

by Vincent Skolny

Jennifer is my daughter. She’s three.

Puss-puss was my mother-in-law’s cat. It was hit by a car several weeks ago and, yes, its name really was Puss-puss.

Last week Jennifer and I went for a walk. Just out of the driveway, she asked me to hold her hand because, “I don’t want to get runned over.”

I explained her grammar error and obliged.

Without any regard for my explanation she went on, “If I get runned over, I will be dead and gone like Puss-puss and you won’t see me anymore.”

That’s a pretty good summary of being dead, isn’t it—gone and seen no more? I hadn’t really thought about it until she said that, but when the cat died, I explained that it was simply gone and not coming back. Apparently, she understood it.

It certainly gives lie to the silly idea that death is something children can’t understand, doesn’t it?

Death isn’t confusing at all: We’re gone and won’t be seen anymore. What makes death confusing and confuses children is pretending that dead people (or cats) are really somehow still alive. Or anything other than what they are: dead and gone.

Reality is seldom as confusing as lying about it.

As atheists we should never deny reality. In fact, if you think of the things commonly categorized as “too hard to understand”, “too confusing”, or “too mature” for children, you’ll find things like death, sexuality, and procreation—things Christians are afraid of and lie about.

As relevant atheists, we should never deny reality by not recognizing and rejecting the Cultic American Culture’s taboos that lie about it.

Ya Think?
Trying On Atheism
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
Atheists at CPAC
  • Siberia

    That’s entirely true. I remember when my cousin died, they told my little 2nd cousin that her uncle was “dead and had turned into a star”.

    Of course her reaction was: BUT I DON’T WANT HIM TO BE A STAR!

  • revatheist

    My daughter is seven and has had to deal with some tragic deaths over the last couple of years. First a beloved dog died, and later her great-grandpa (whom she was very close to) died. I explained that people who die are gone but they are still with us in our memories. She has some slight trepedations now about death (much like your daughter not wanting to get “runned over”), but all in all, she’s handled it very well. She even requested to have some of her great-grandpa’s ashes; when we asked her why (hoping she wasn’t just being morbid), she said so that she would have a reminder of him. So now she has a small jar of the ashes on her dresser, and last Memorial Day, after we explained to her why we were putting flowers on graves, she requested a flower to place by the ashes on her dresser. I think she has the right idea.

    • Vince

      Sure sounds like it, rev.

      I think morbidity (rather than healthy remembering) is a function of not processing death. Do you?

      • revatheist

        I think you’re right.

  • Custador

    Death can be a tricky topic around children because it’s fairly normal in human development not to have a concept of death until you’re heading into adolescence. You don’t want to traumatize them and force them to grow up too fast. Similarly, many adults with severe learning diffuculties never develop a concept of death at all – it’s just too abstract a concept for them to understand – and you have to be really quite thorough in breaking the news to them: “Nan can’t breathe anymore or walk anymore, she can’t talk anymore, she can’t wake-up anymore, not even if she wants to”.

    I think what I’m saying is that sometimes there is a very good reason to treat somebody like a child – and it’s because they are a child!

    Certainly that should extend to discussions with theists about things which they’re just not emotionally equipped to cope with – faith stunts intellectual and emotional development quite badly, after all. You need to introduce concepts like “science” and “evidence” slowly and let them draw their own conclusions – otherwise you scare them away and make them angry and confrontational. (Note: Yes, I’m a big giant hypocrite who likes to wind fundies up – but I’m not trying to deconvert them) .

    • Vince

      The distinction is in the simplicity and style of answer, not in fundamental truthfulness. A good rule of thumb is that if a child can frame a question, she or he can grasp an honest answer.

      • Custador

        Actually, that is an excellent rule of thumb, I like that one.

  • ungullible

    You are correct that children can understand death far better than many of us give them credit for. But that doesn’t mean they fully understand it or won’t have issues trying to come to terms with it. I had discussed with my kids that when you die, your body stops functioning and your body decomposes and that is it. But when my son was around 8, the thought of death was still bothering him. I finely figured out through discussing it with him, that he was thinking in typical body/mind dualist terms and, since I had said that they “body” dies, he was thinking that his consciousness continued – and the idea of being in that box under dirt scared him. Once I explained that your consciousness is a biological thing too, and that his “experience” after death will be the same as it was before his birth, he had no more issues.

    • Jeff

      Christians have the benefit of being able to make up their reality. It’s very handy.

      Fairy tales for adults.

      That’s precisely why there are some people in my life who I don’t dare point out the fantasy aspect of their religious belief. In some cases, if I did lead them down the evidential beliefs they already have for all the other aspects of their life, then get them to see the folly of their religion, it would pull the rug out from under them.

      I have a few friends that are like that and one relative. Their religion gives them comfort, much like Santa Clause gives some children comfort.

      That’s fine.

      Just don’t start trying to impose these fantasy religious beliefs on our science classes or government. THEN you’ll hear a lot from me!

  • TheChristian

    Christians are not afraid of all these things; in fact, we are more brave than some of you are. Only that you love misinterpreting us. *Sigh*

    • Custador

      Evidence, arsehole.

    • nomad

      Yeah. Right.

    • Unladenswallow

      We (Christians) are more brave? You (atheists) love misinterpreting us (Christians)?

      At the risk of sounding as arrogant as you do I think you have it backwards.

    • Siberia

      we are more brave than some of you are

      ORLY? Example, please?

    • Mike

      As an atheist, I know exactly what my experience of death will be. As a Christian, you spend your whole life worrying whether you are worthy enough or if you will roast.

      Btw, you’d come across less the patronising *dickhead* if you omitted the *sigh*

    • Elliott

      ‘Brave’ is having the courage to commit yourself publicly to what you believe is true, even when it means potential ostracism.

      Brave is casting off a mind trap which has crippled you with fear of eternal punishment for your entire childhood.

      Brave is swallowing your pride and admitting the universe doesn’t have a ‘plan’ for you.

      Brave is confronting your fear of death, and realizing that when you die, that’s it; you’re snuffed out like a candle and nothing about you lives on, except the atoms of your body in the bellies of worms. Even if you don’t want to admit it

      Brave is standing up to 95% of everyone else in your community or country and saying “you’re wrong.”

      That’s brave.

      • cynic

        @ Elliot
        well put

      • LRA

        Eliott– I still fear the fact that there is no plan for me. I’m still trying to find some kind of significance for my existence, even if it is temporary. I don’t feel brave– I feel very, very scared sometimes.

        :(, but also :)

    • revatheist

      Personally, I think that bravery in the face of death is irrelevant. No one wants to die (yes, I know that those with chronic physical or psychological pain may desire death, but I think more exactly those people desire an end of pain not death per se). Whether one wails aginst death or accepts it stoically, the end is the same. However for surviving family, the experience of a loved one’s death can be very different depending on their religious convictions. In my personal experience, atheists have far more depth of grief because a lost loved one is lost forever, their one and only life having been snuffed out; Christians (and other believers for that matter) tend to put less value on life (after all, it was all just a test for the afterlife anyway) and instead simply look forward to seeing their loved ones again (personally, I think that a big reason why the religious grieve at all is the ancient evolutionary heritage that understands death as the ultimate destruction)

  • Offred

    I have never seen anyone fight against death as hard as my SIL who was quite important and very respected in her church. She was always saying how glorious it was going to be sitting around with God, Jesus and all her saved family members.
    Of course when her younger sister (who was a Witness) was dying she stopped visiting once it was made clear sis was refusing to be saved… When any unsaved family members died she couldn’t have cared less except to say it was such a shame that they were lost…
    She wasn’t afraid of death, she was terrified and I sure didn’t see Jesus helping her go softly into that good night when it was her turn to go….

    • DCtouristsANDlocals

      What do you mean that her sister was refusing to be saved?

  • Revyloution

    Good on ya for teaching your daughter with honesty! Too many parents find it convenient to just lie. And good on ya for working on her grammar early, she will thank you for that later.

    Raising my daughter, we never resort to any lies. No Santa, tooth fairy, heaven, or storks. She’s 7 now, and has a firm grasp on human reproduction (thats a tough one, but it can be done tactfully), death, and also has great grammar for her age.

    Its amazing that when you treat children with the same respect you treat adults, they blossom so much quicker, but they don’t seem to lose that childhood innocence. She still loves to pretend that Santa is coming, she’s all about getting $5 from the Tooth Ogre (I told her the Ogres pay more than the fairys) , and she has a great imagination. All without resorting to lying to her.

  • Durr Hurr

    I have been a witness to the deaths of several people with terminal illnesses in my life. Two were Christians, and one was an atheist.

    The atheist had come to terms with what would happen to her after death long before she died. She died in a very calm, quiet, and dignified way.

    The Christians, on the other hand, both died in panic and terror, crying and fighting tooth and nail to stay alive until their last breath. It was a horrible, horrible thing to watch both times.

    Dogmatic religion, and how it poisons and warps peoples’ minds, is truly disgusting. It must be eradicated.

    • Tabbie

      Tammy Faye fought and struggled and panicked and had one heck of a time letting go. I think back to all the times over the years, when with giant tears and big glops of mascara running down her face, she sang so fervently of how she could hardly wait to see Jesus someday.

  • Dutchgirl

    I grew up nominally Christian, but dispensed with the heaven idea around the same time as Sinterklaas (the Dutch Santa) What I remember most clearly isn’t fear, but a terrible sadness at the thought of all the things I would miss out on if I were dead. That made me very uncomfortable at times. There is a great longing in the human psyche to not miss out, to keep experiencing. Perhaps that is why so many people choose to believe in an afterlife.

  • Elliott

    What makes death confusing and confuses children is pretending that dead people (or cats) are really somehow still alive.


  • Ron

    I believe it was wrong to chastise your child for saying “runned”. Besides the poor timing, I’ve read that the future planetary language is going to be English without irregularities. I think you should listen to her carefully, it won’t be long before she will be correct and you will be sounding archaic.

    • Elliott

      If we hadn’t already ironed a bunch of irregular past tenses out of English, we’d be knee deep in idiosyncratic forms. To give you an idea of some of the verbs we’ve regularized, take the principal parts of ‘take.’

      take, took, taken

      Some of the verbs that have been ‘fixed’ are:

      mourn, mearn, murnon

      lock, lack, locken

      help, halp, holpen

      melt, malt, molten

      burn, barn, burnen

      braid, brayed, brugdon

      Nobody misses those, and they won’t miss ‘run, ran, run’ and any of the others, either :)

  • Elemenope

    burn, barn, burnen


    help, halp, holpen

    MORE awesome.

  • Nota Fundie

    Hello! As an atheist my children encounter death all the time primarily because I eat babies in front of them, often in casserole form with black olives and red wine. I do this because I don’t believe in God and therefore have no sense of right and wrong. Oh, by the way, I’m not a fundie troll. I mention that in passing just ’cause. Anyway, back to the baby thing. Man, do I love eating babies! They’re delicious! Have I mentioned I’m not a fundie troll? Because that’s important if this is going to work. No, wait, I mean, if this is going to be effective. I mean, you know, if you think I’m a fundie then you won’t think that atheists really eat babies but I want you to believe that because… no, wait. Anyway, point is, I’m not a fundie. Okay, so…

    Life without morals. Awesome, right? It’s so great to be a Godless, amoral atheist (which of course I would have to be because I am so clearly NOT a fundie troll)!


    • Custador

      That’s got to be wither Jabster or Sunny. Either way, I deeply aprove :-)

      • Jabster

        Sorry can’t claim for this one … although maybe I’m a plant working for the other side to make you lot look bad. Basically like Ray Comfort but the other way around.

    • Not a Pastor; Honest

      Kill the babies, KILL them all with blunt pitchforks as Stalin, Hitler (Adolf not Eddie), The Pope and Pol Pot have already done … why SHOULD I have morals when I pretend (sorry I mean have faith) that GOD doesn’t exist …. bwaaaahhhhh !!!!!!!11111!!!!!1!!!!

      • Custador

        So, definitely somebody English because of the Eddie Hitler reference – Not Sunny Day then….

        • Revyloution

          HEY! I know Eddie Hitler, and the largest part of England Ive ever seen was the transfer terminal at Heathrow!

      • Custador

        D’n. Deffinitely D’n.

  • Nota Fundie

    Gentlemen and Women, I am glad to have met the approval of my fellow amoral Godless folk. It’s a pleasure to be here on a Sunday and not in church where those foolish Christians learn right from wrong and good from bad instead of running over old people while driving and typing this comment into my blackberry. Wait… wait… Yes! Just got another one. Damn it’s good to be an atheist (and not a fundie troll)!

  • Pyvsi

    Reminds me of the Cosby episode when Rudy’s fish died. Cliff made a big deal of it, tried to explain that the goldfish was in a better place, made a funeral and everything. Rudy just wanted to watch TV and use the bathroom. She probably would have been just fine if the family simply told her,
    “He’s dead. Stop feeding him. Okay?”