Helping Kids Cope With Death In The Absence Of Heaven

Helping Kids Cope With Death In The Absence Of Heaven April 18, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, here in my little town, we lost a teenaged boy. His grandmother went into his bedroom to wake him up for school and discovered she couldn’t. Emergency responders rushed to the scene to no avail. He was gone.

The boy was the boyfriend of a friend of my daughter’s. She texted me from school, distraught, telling me a boy at her school at been discovered dead that morning. She said she was sick to her stomach. My own churned as I thought of how much I love my kids and just how much despair the boy’s family must be in right now. I cried at my desk. You don’t want to imagine it, but you can’t help it. You can’t help but imagine what it would be like to go into their bedroom in the morning, just like any other, and not be able to wake them.

The last thing on earth I ever want to be thinking about is the fragility of the lives of my children. I mean, I have enough trouble dealing with the fact that I’ll only have my dog for just over a decade if I’m lucky. Contemplating the mortality of my beautiful children renders me utterly useless. It’s an emotion so strong I am functionally crippled while I’m feeling it.

In the wake of this tragedy, I was distraught, but the worst part about it was thinking of my daughter’s reaction. We hope our kids never have to contemplate their own mortality; that they can just live through their childhood, carefree and happy. That’s just not the reality of the world we live in, though. Bad things happen. People die. Chances are, your babies are going to have to face the reality of death at some point before they’re grown, and there’s really not much we can do about it. All we can do is be there for them, and in my heathen mind, part of that is being honest.

I grew up without religion. I didn’t really understand what people meant when they referred to “god” until I was nearly a teenager. I didn’t know what prayer was, or why people went to church, but I did have some exposure to the idea of Heaven. I thought that Heaven was where people (and dogs) went when they died. When my grandfather died, he went to Heaven. When my dogs died, they went to Heaven. Sure, my parents were atheists, but I think the idea of Heaven transcends denomination. I think it transcends religion as an easy explanation for children when someone is just gone. I love my parents, and they were damn near the perfect mom and dad, but they opted for the easy explanation when people died. They told me they were in Heaven.

It’s important to note that I don’t think they meant it in the way that religious people do. They didn’t draw me a picture of some sunny utopia in another dimension where every dinner was Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. I think “Heaven” to them was synonymous with “dead”. “They’re in Heaven” meant the same thing as “they’re dead”. I don’t think I really understood what Heaven was back then; I just believed my dead relatives had gone somewhere else where they could look down on us. I remember thinking my grandfather was watching me, angrily, every time I did something I knew I shouldn’t be doing.

I don’t really know when I stopped believing that. I am not worse for having believed it, but there are a lot of religious people who think I would have suffered more had my parents left Heaven out of it; that they did me a favour letting me believe I would be reunited with my dead relatives (and dogs) one day. There are a lot of religious people who think I am doing wrong by my children because I tell them the truth about death: that we are simply gone, and there is no reason to believe any part of us lives on elsewhere in the universe.

My daughter is not religious in any sense of the word. She has trouble believing in anything supernatural, let alone Heaven. She’s suffered a lot of loss in her short life, and I have never once been inclined to tell her that all the people she’s lost are waiting for her in Heaven. She has no delusions of a giant party in the sky where all the dead people go. I am sure she’s had people in her life tell her of Heaven, but my husband and I have always been honest with her about the fact that we don’t believe in it.

According to many believers, I’m not giving her enough to deal with loss. In their worldview, we are painting the world to be bleak and meaningless for our children. They say we’re not giving our kids any hope or coping skills. As the Mormon missionaries who were at my door the other day asked,

“Don’t you feel bad about denying your kids the belief they will meet their lost loved ones once again and spend eternity with them?”

The following Monday after the boy in my daughter’s school died, she texted me from class saying that his girlfriend had returned to school that day. She told me that when she saw her she froze, unable to concentrate on school at all. She couldn’t concentrate because she was acutely aware of the tremendous grief her friend was burdened with. She froze because she was absorbing the pain of this loss, uncontrollably empathizing with people outside of herself.

She spent the next week talking about it, feeling it and grieving this shocking loss. Finally, two days ago, she joined her friends until late at night, tying balloons to everything they could across our tiny town in remembrance of the boy who was gone. We all woke up to hundreds of blue and black balloons on every corner. She engaged in the selfless act for a boy who wasn’t even her friend to show she recognized the pain his loved ones were feeling and to let them know they were not alone.

When I saw what they had done, I couldn’t help but choke back tears.

So, when people ask if I feel bad that my kids are not growing up believing we’ll all be together again one day, my answer is no. No, I do not feel bad for telling them the truth: that this is the one life we know for sure we get. I don’t feel bad for teaching them that we need to be our best selves in this life, the only one we know we have because there is no reason to believe we get another.

The truth is, believer or not, none of us knows for sure what happens after we die. I’m not afraid to be honest with my kids about that. We don’t lie to them and tell them we know there is a happy place we all end up when we’re dead. We don’t lie and say they will meet their lost loved ones again. And yet, my daughter still managed to find the most beautiful way to cope. Despite the fact that a couple of godless heathen parents are honest with her about what death really is, she managed to remind an entire town to have hope.

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  • So, when people ask if I feel bad that my kids are not growing up believing we’ll all be together again one day, my answer is no. No, I do not feel bad for telling them the truth: that this is the one life we know for sure we get. I don’t feel bad for teaching them that we need to be our best selves in this life, the only one we know we have because there is no reason to believe we get another.

    Hear hear! That’s been my approach all along. I never indulged my kids in any fantasies about an afterlife or anything. They realize that grief is the only natural response to the loss of loved ones, and that remembering them is the only way we’ll ever feel their presence again.

  • I agree. I grew up with the concept of heaven and hell. If you did the right combination of repentance and praying the “sinner’s prayer” and truly believing and living a righteous life, you would go to heaven. If you were “lost” and had not accepted Jesus (or if you were an atheist or a Muslim or Hindu or Catholic or any other non-approved religion), you were going to hell. I also had the vision that the dead in heaven saw EVERYTHING I did, including going to the bathroom. I felt I had no provacy. It was not comforting knowing all my dead relatives had seem me naked in the shower.

    My kids, on the other hand, having no religious upbringing, think that this life is it, then we cease to exist. I literally just asked them about it, and they are comfortable with the concept that this life is probably all we have. They talked about doing things they enjoy, planning things for the future. They are 16 and 18 and seem fine with the concept of no deity, heaven, angels, etc. Certainly they aren’t thinking of their dead relatives checking them out in the bathroom.

  • Brian Curtis

    Recently, the Pope was asked by a small child if his deceased atheist father was in Heaven. Predictably, the Pope ducked the question and gave a vague, comforting answer that doesn’t conform to actual Catholic doctrine.

    http://www.newsweek.com/pope-francis-hugs-comforts-little-boy-who-asked-atheist-dad-was-heaven-891113

    It was an excellent moment for exposing religion’s despicable take on divine justice and the afterlife.

  • Jennny

    I was fundy when raising my family, but one of several things that started my doubts was that after some years as a SAHM, I went back to work. Two colleages lost an elderly parent about the same time. My fundy-bubble-beliefs said they would be distraught and I would be able to offer them comfort – and my wonderful jesus. That didn’t happen of course. They grieved, naturally, but seeking religious comfort was not on their radar. They both spoke of ‘the circle of life’ and the long happy lives of their relatives. They described the non-religious services held for them. One asked that anyone who could do so, should plant a flowering tree somewhere and the other donated a memorial bench at his favourite beauty spot. They seemed to have a much healthier, more normal approach to death – and that’s what I want to share with my grandkids. Unfortunately this granny is a passionate gardener, so the list of what I want them to plant in my memory just gets longer, I can’t help myself.

  • Being honest with our kids even when it’s difficult is the height of love and respect for them.

  • Kids can handle a lot more than some people want to give them credit for. I love that you were able to free yourself from those beliefs. You sound like a great mom!

  • Don’t get me started on the Pope… that’s when my most colourful vocabulary is let loose.

  • A lush, green garden planted in your memory… there are certainly worse ways to deal with grief!

  • Syzygy

    The pope seems to have compassion.
    The Bible god does not.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    Excellent essay, Godless Mom! Your honesty with your daughter is refreshing.

  • Thank you!

  • Mythblaster

    If I had had children, I’d like to think I would have raised them the same way as yours. Honesty truly is the best policy.

  • Mythblaster

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/36ed18bf2f9fca16b95562d0f066480c1209c01eedd48d9480984e534e8d796b.png

    The article’s artwork reminded me of a conversation I had with a young man years ago in DC at the Reason Rally. He asked me if I believed in Heaven.

  • They can definitely handle a lot, especially if their parents answer their questions honestly and openly. We always tried to answer that way – at the zoo when our 3 year old saw 2 turtles mating, she asked what the turtles were doing. We told her they were trying to make baby turtles. She was satisfied with the answer and moved on. Other parents hurried away from the turtle area because they didn’t want to talk about it. Now my teen kids are open talking about drugs, alcohol, sex (to an extent anyway). My daughter said recently, “I can’t believe we are having a conversation about drinking at a fraternity party.” (She was going to visit her friend at college). I said, “I am not going to pretend drinking doesn’t exist, and I want to give you advice about safety, and the choices and consequences are yours.” So, we try to be good parents….but it is hard.

  • boneheadaudio

    Canadian Rock icons Trooper go here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHnl7jNK6us

  • Dyslexic, agnostic insomniac

    Religiously deluded people seem to conveniently keep forgetting that – according to their own bible – no one of us mortals has actually made it to heaven yet. Everyone that has ever died is apparently being kept in some kind of holding pattern, somewhere or other, until after the rapture. Now, this rapture must be experiencing some kind of technical difficulties, because it was supposed to happen about 2 millienia ago, ie., within the lifetime of jesus’s disciples, as promised by the JC himself.

  • anxionnat

    When my nephew was about three, he and I were playing in a neighborhood park. From the top of the slide, he turned to me and asked, “Auntie Di, what if–what it–you die?” At that moment I realized that he must have had someone in his life die–something he could not understand at that age. So I told him the truth. I said, “Rafi, I’ll be here as long as you need me.” That seemed to satisfy him, and he went on playing. Now he’s in his late 20s, and doesn’t remember that interaction, but we’ve had many discussions of death since then. Now he acts as my part-time caretaker, as I was his back then. I think kids actually understand more than we give them credit for. (BTW, he’s as wonderful a person now as he was back then. We are very close.)

  • Cozmo the Magician

    Pedophile Protecting , Money Laundering, Racist, Genocidal, Distopia Glorifying, Lying Sack of Shit. There, I gave you some to add your list if you didn’t have them. Or you could just look up a bunch of ‘Yo Mama’ zingers, he HATES those.

  • “the proposition of “no superhuman entity””

    Had you been an atheist, you’d understand this is not atheism.

  • That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you!

  • That is a fantastic analogy.

  • Isn’t the rapture supposed to happen today?

  • Kids do understand a lot more than we give them credit for. Agreed.

  • skenl

    What your daughter did to demonstrate compassion, to mourn with others, is indeed beautiful. Seems like you raised her well!
    I’ve read a lot about being honest with your children, and praising that honesty. Good enough. The thing is, what is honest for one may not be honest for everyone. When I taught my children about an afterlife, I was being honest with them from my perspective. I have had experiences leading me to strongly believe that individual personalities/persons/entities continue to live after the death of the physical body. So I am not offering them false comfort and platitudes when speaking of physical death. How they work it all out in their minds as adults is up to them. I teach them what I’ve experienced. I think that’s the best we can do as parents.

  • Michael Tymn

    Courtney, you have certainly acquired much “truth” in your short lifetime. You say that “there is no reason to believe any part of us lives on elsewhere in the universe,” which clearly suggests that you haven’t done much research. There is an abundance of evidence suggesting that consciousness survives physical death. I’m referring to research in near-death studies, reincarnation, mediumship, deathbed visions, and other phenomena. I realize that the skeptical magazines and scientific fundamentalists think it is all bunk and are able to come up with theories which they think explain it all away. However, the scientists and scholars who have devoted much time to the research can easily debunk the debunkers. The evidence may not provide absolute certainty or even “proof” (a subjective word), but it is as strong as evidence in many other areas of science. One thing is clear: you can’t disprove it. So how can you be certain that you know the “truth” of it all? Wouldn’t it be better to tell your daughter that some people believe that we are totally extinct after death, but many people believe that we live on in a greater reality? Forget the God part of it all. God is not necessary to believe in the survival of consciousness, at least an anthropomorphic (humanlike) god. Nor is it necessary to use the word “heaven” or to think of that greater reality as being the humdrum place that religions make it out to be. Telling your daughter that you have the “truth” of it all does seem quite pretentious and very unfair to her.

  • Such a good point about honesty – of course believers are being honest with their children when they tell them about Heaven.

  • Lots to discuss here. I may address it in a blog post coming up.