Kids Don’t Need Heaven To Cope With Death

Kids Don’t Need Heaven To Cope With Death April 11, 2019

When I worked at the Vancouver International Airport as an aircraft groomer, I had this coworker, Jarnail. I would often end up on overnight deep grooms with Jarnail as the two of us were among the youngest on staff and could handle a night shift. I would even get off work and go straight to class after. If I attempted that now, I’m almost certain I’d end up hospitalized, but I digress. I worked with Jarnail often, just the two of us in the dead of the night. That was always the perfect mix for some deep existential conversation that only made sense in our intensely sleep-deprived state of mind.

One night we were on a Continental Airlines deep groom. Just the two of us, vacuuming the aisle, scrubbing armrests with toothbrushes, replacing tattered old magazines with fresh, crisp new ones. We were deep in conversation as we scrubbed two lavatories across from each other when Jarnail told me he’d recently lost his father. I told him I was sorry and he began to tell me all about how much he’d admired his dad. Then, Jarnail told me that his father had passed while they weren’t talking to each other. My heart sunk for my friend. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a loved one while you’re not speaking with them.

It was then that Jarnail told me that, though he comes from a Hindu family, he believes in a more Christian idea of Heaven. He believed that Heaven was eternal and Heaven was where he was going to be able to fix things with his father. I told him I thought the idea was beautiful. He knew I didn’t believe those sorts of things. I told him I hoped he was right.

“Me too, C. Me too.” He said.

I totally understood why someone like Jarnail needed to believe that. I got it and I would never think to challenge him after unloading this on me. I couldn’t help but think, though, if maybe he hadn’t believed in eternal life and second chances, maybe he’d have been quicker to fix things with his dad in this life. If he’d thought that this was it; this is the only chance we get to do the things we need to do, maybe he would have felt a greater sense of urgency to repair his relationship with his father.

Recently, I got an email from a reader and she asked,

Since you are an atheist, I’m assuming you don’t believe in heaven/afterlife? If so, what do you tell your child when a loved one passes?

She’s right: I don’t believe in an afterlife. So many believers have approached me online to tell me how sad that sounds. They are incapable of seeing how any hope can exist in a mind that doesn’t think anything comes after all of this. Of course, when you really think about it, that’s silly.

I want you to consider the 1976 summer Olympics in Montreal. A fifteen-year-old Romanian gymnast takes the uneven bars. What follows is sports history. The first perfect 10 ever awarded to an Olympic gymnast. Nadia Comaneci had less than a minute to perform physical feats that the rest of us could never dream of. She busted her ass from a young age, practising day and night, sacrificing a normal childhood and a normal social life, all to be able to take those bars for a few short seconds and alter the course of history.

She had less than a minute as the world watched. Less than a minute to destroy records. Less than a minute to make history. And she did it.

Now, I want you to imagine that each competitor had an eternity on those bars while the world watched. I want you to imagine there had been no time limit on the bars to find that perfect-10 routine. Imagine we would all watch each gymnast take those bars as long as they needed to in order to nail it.

It wouldn’t have been as impressive, would it? Eventually, each of them would have scored a perfect 10. Everyone would get the gold.

Imagine if Beethoven’s ninth went on forever instead of 70 minutes.

Imagine if the Avengers Infinity Wars had gone on infinitely, instead of 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Imagine if Moby Dick never ended or if Jack Kerouac’s cross-country road trip was still going or if Hamlet just went on and on and on, forever scouring the earth for new characters to murder.

Imagine, fellow GoT fans, if we knew for sure that Game of Thrones would never end.

Sometimes the beauty of a thing lies in its brevity. Often we appreciate something more because we only get to hang on to it for a fleeting moment. There is more value in things that eventually run out; in things that come to an end.

Life is one of those things and it is that end that I believe gives it more value. It is that looming end that has the ability to motivate us to get things done in the here and now, instead of resting on the knowledge that we have an eternity to do it. It is the realization that life comes to a true end and we never know when that will be that forces us to embrace this moment right now.

So, what do I tell my kids when someone dies? I tell them that they are gone. That, as far as we know, they have ceased to exist. I tell my kids that they should feel lucky to have had that person in their life and to cherish the good memories they have of them. I tell them that it is also a reminder that life is fleeting and we must carpe the eff out of every goddamned diem. I tell my children to cherish the people they love who are still here because we only get a tiny sliver of eternity to be with each other and we have to use that time wisely.

Don’t sweat the small stuff; tell people you love that you love them, and experience life now.

I tell them that some people believe there is an afterlife and there are a million different versions of that afterlife that have been proposed. My children know that I don’t know that there isn’t one any more than a believer knows there is. All we know for sure is this life we’ve got now, and so that is what we must focus on.

If they want to believe that something comes after, that would be their choice and I wouldn’t think any less of them. But I will never stop reminding them that all we know for sure is this life and so we must do our living now.

I tell my kids that life is fleeting and that’s what gives it value. Play now, love now, live now because we are lucky enough to have now.

I want to know, what do you tell your kids about death? How do you help them cope with the loss of a loved one? Let me know in the comments!

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Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay

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  • Phil Rimmer

    With kids, never even start with heaven. Stop it with the ghastly euphemistic language of “passing” instead of dying. Death is a galvanising catastrophe for all nearby. Don’t ever belittle it.

    To not recognise death from the outset is to set in store a far greater catastrophe when its true import is finally grasped. Those loved ones “passed” must die again. Those precious moments of an infinitely precious life squandered in a lackadaisical fantasy.

    My two, from their earliest, knew all things die and grew to understand the importance of death in our species’ very progress, culturally and genetically. Life is only the more precious for it. They seemed no more upset by death than religious kids when young. Indeed they seemed far more grounded by their knowledge.

  • Jennny

    I still have a horrible memory when teaching. A 6yo was reading with me when she suddenly burst into tears. She sobbed ‘My mummy’s lost the baby. How can you lose a baby?’ She’d always seemed insecure to me, I felt she was worried her mother was going to ‘lose’ her next. I said gently she should talk to her mother, I didn’t feel it was my position to explain. But I never used the word ‘lost’ for ‘died’ again.

  • kantalope

    I got the same message when vision talked to voltron in that one movie: things are not beautiful because they last.

  • Phil Rimmer

    The greatest poetry is unavailable to those without the certainty of absolute loss.

  • A few years ago a good friend died of the flu. His three daughters spoke at the memorial service and the youngest, an atheist, had the most beautiful words to say:

    “People keep telling me I’ll see him in Heaven, but I don’t have to wait.
    I see him in the faces of my beautiful sisters;
    I feel him in my mother’s arms;
    I smell him on his land, and in his guitar case, and in his books;
    And I hold him in my heart.
    I don’t. have. to wait.”

  • lonnie93041

    That is brilliant.

  • Very well said and very good points. Thank you!

  • Beautiful.

  • That’s wonderful. A great way to look at it.

  • firebubbles310

    Now I never will either. Poor kid. That is horrifying