The first time I really had to face the death of a human being I loved, it was my grandfather. He was my dad’s dad, a fellow heathen and I was just five years old. I remember watching my dad hang up the phone, walk outside in a daze, sit down on the curb in front of our house and start sobbing. The first time I saw my dad cry.
I remember I didn’t think Grandpa Heard had ceased to exist. I just thought he’d gone somewhere else. Even as an atheist being raised by atheists, the idea of Heaven had infected my mind. I thought he was up there, watching me with a smile.
The second time, it was my other Grandfather. Papa Bob, we called him. He passed when I was ten and I no longer believed he’d gone anywhere. I was fairly certain he’d just ceased to be.
I remember the gist of the way my dad explained it,
“We only have each other for this life, but it could be worse, Co. We could have never had each other at all.”
The idea was, we ought to feel lucky to have known the people who matter to us the most. We ought to feel lucky that they graced our lives during their time here on earth. I remember thinking that I’d never see my grandfathers again, but at least I’d had the chance to know them.
I carried this attitude with me throughout my life and it didn’t just apply to people who died. I thought this way about relationships that broke up, friendships that dissolved as we grew apart. I trained myself to remember the happy parts of it and though, in the end, my heart broke, I felt lucky to have had those experiences at all.
My son is lucky that he hasn’t had to face a major death in his life yet. Two years ago, we did lose our beloved pup, though. Up until that point, I had always been open and honest with my kiddo about death. I told him that death was when we stopped existing. When someone dies they are gone.
After our furbum died, I talked to him about how long dogs live on average and that we were so lucky to have had him as long as we did. I made sure he knew that feeling sad was okay and that sometimes it helps us to cope when we find ways to keep his memory alive.
In the case of our Rocky dog, I told my son that I felt the best way to honour his memory is to find another dog who needed a home just as badly as Rocky had, and love that dog just as much as we loved Roggo Socks. My son agreed and now we have our beloved Lucy, rescued from Houston, Texas.
Of course, your kids will still feel the pain. They will still be sad and though it kills us to see, nothing we do or say is going to take that sadness away. Instead, we have to validate that pain. We have to tell them it’s okay and normal to feel sad about losing a loved one. We have to comfort them and keep that window of conversation open for as long as they need it. Hold your babies. Talk to your babies. Reminisce about your lost loved one with your babies.
This is how I help my kids cope with death, but what about the fear of dying? How do we, as atheist parents, help our kids get over a fear of dying?
Yesterday, I got this email from an anonymous parent:
My six-year-old is having trouble coping with death. He’s terrified of dying and can’t sleep some nights because of it. What should I do without resorting to telling him stories about Heaven?
Admittedly, this is a fear that hijacks my mind sometimes, too. Often, it’s late at night if I’m struggling to sleep. Usually, these thoughts creep up on particularly stressful days or even days where I’ve been left to hang out in my own head for too long. I’ve had plenty a panic attack at 3 in the morning worrying about losing a loved one or myself dying.
There are a couple of facts about anxiety in general, though:
1. It’s often irrational.
2. It has more power over an unstimulated mind.
Talking to your kids about death, how to cope with it and what it means is absolutely imperative, but because anxiety like this can be irrational, trying to ration it out of your kids may not get you anywhere. Instead, you need to provide them with real, tangible ways to cope.
One of the best ways to cope with any sort of anxiety is to keep yourself busy with meaningful activity. Keep the brain stimulated, and the body moving so that when you do hit that pillow, you’re genuinely tired and your brain is way too over it to start exploring your deepest fears. In other words, keep your kids busy. Don’t let them sit too long in front of screens, get them outside in the fresh air and moving their bodies and actively encourage any extra-curricular activities they show the slightest bit of interest in. Talking about this with your kids, you can explain that life is finite and that’s why we cherish it; that’s why we need to live each day to its fullest.
Another way to help your kids cope is to have them set goals. Explain to your little ones that we do only have this one life and because we don’t get any do-overs, we should fill this life with things that matter to us. We want to squeeze every last drop of living out of our one life so we can say, at the end of it all, that we didn’t waste our time here. Show them how to set goals and work towards them. This also helps to keep their minds occupied and their bodies tired at the end of the day.
I would also let your kids know death is a part of life and it’s the precise part of life that gives life value. If we just went on living forever, we might not value what we have now as much.
Most importantly, be understanding. The idea of losing someone you love is scary, especially to kids. The idea of no longer being amongst all the people you love is equally as scary. We naturally want to hang on to our loved ones for as long as we possibly can. Validate how your little ones are feeling. Tell them it’s okay to be afraid; it’s okay to be sad and that anytime they need to talk about it, or even if they just need a cuddle, you are there for them.
I asked some of you how you help your kids cope with death. Here are some of your answers:
I've just always told them death is a part of life and it is what it is there is nothing to stop it so just live life and be as happy as you can. The older one,12, has the roughest time when thinking about death little one seems a bit more accepting&less panicked when discussing. https://t.co/mwN7Cyk99g
— A2theP!♋ (@ama_nicol) October 17, 2018
I'd educate them with a side of empathy that death is part of our existence, while encouraging them to live life to the fullest and channel their talents and be what they wish to be, unlike religious types scaring them with hell or pitching scams like heaven or 72 virgins.
— Saket Chaturvedi (@UpTheIrons83) October 17, 2018
I tell them it's just like going back to the time before you were born. You live on in the memories of other people and that's your legacy.
— Atlantic Atheist (@Tsucks42567) October 17, 2018
I teach them punctuation. Without periods, sentences go on forever, lose their meaning, and get boring. Death=Life’s Periods.— Asa Gideon (@realasagideon) October 17, 2018
I never told my kids that Grandma was smiling down on them from heaven. They are smart and would never have believed that bs. Instead, I would hug them and say "I know Grandma would have been really proud of you today."
— Kristine (@Indyvoter707) October 17, 2018
Naturally is the simplest answer I guess. Tell them the truth and try to help them with the feelings. It’s certainly no good lying to them only for them to find out later that you did.
— Trevor wratten (@wratten_trevor) October 17, 2018
Set up life goals. Work to achieve them. Rest assured that if you do good stuff your legacy will live on.
— D RLev (@Dr_BubblesLaRue) October 17, 2018
Tell them that they live on in the good memories? And that it's OK to feel sad?
— Take THAT, Historic Scream (@TakeThatHistory) October 17, 2018
This has been a tough one in my family-my 7 year old has panic attacks about death.Completely the reason Religion was created, to make everyone immortal- much easier that way. I calm him down,with math and pictures to show him how long life is. Interested to read your thoughts
— JR (@wombat3366) October 17, 2018
We talked with our son about treasuring the time he gets to spend with people he loves, whether it’s family or friends. We only get this one chance to experience life. Soaking in every moment and remembering the ones we’ve lost is the best way to honor the dead.
— The Demon Crowley (@iSaunterVaguely) October 17, 2018
The answer varies based on the age, but regardless of how gently I approach the subject, I'd have to say, honestly.
— Atheist intelligence (@JimMatisi) October 17, 2018
A line I've used: "Their energy has been released back to the stars from which we came." Still a bit spiritual I guess, but also very much based in science and physics. Helps children cope better than "Grandma's worm food now."
— Stasis Interrupted (@S_Interrupted) October 17, 2018
Dean Porter said, “I go with the physics rule that all energy is only borrowed and we must give it back when it’s our time…”
Bill Tiffany said, “My daughter used to get frights and become neurotic when the concept of her death would come to her mind. She would be sitting on the rug in the front room and would just gasp and shudder her breath and exhale “I’m going to die one day!” I took her on my lap and I told her that we don’t know what this universe is all about but there is a theory that the universe expands and expands and expands and then collapses upon itself and then it starts back over again. There is a chance that everything we are experiencing has happened before and it will happen again and again. I may have been your father 1000 times or a million times before and you may have been sitting on my lap a million times before listening to me tell you this. There is a reason we feel so close and bonded and why some people feel instantly like we’ve known or met them before. We are eternal all this pain is an illusion. So live the best you can so that you will always have a good experience with this life. Treat people well because you never know how many times you’ll meet them. Be a good person because being good feels good and you are only putting positive energy into the eternities.”
Hillary Mollard said, “They grieve. They mourn. Sometimes they cry. They are given space to feel whatever they feel, without being told that they will see them again/they are in heaven/became an angel/went to live with god, etc. Respecting and validating their very real feelings and holding space for them to grieve is the only way that logically makes sense to help them cope.”
These are all wonderful suggestions and I think it really comes down to honesty and validation. Don’t lie to your babies and let them feel what they are feeling. Remember that you’re not going to be able to take their pain away, nor their fear but you can be a safe place for them to talk about these things.
I want to know how you, as godless parents, help your kids cope with death. Let me know in the comments!
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