This is the last post in a weeklong series offering secular parents some practical advice on handling death, and talks about death, with young children without relying on (or resorting to) religious imagery. Last week, my advice was to give kids permission to be sad. But it’s not the only emotion we should encourage.
After a person dies, the only thing we have left of them is our memories. Yet so many of us don’t talk about dead people because we feel even our happiest memories lead us to melancholy. We assume the only way to avoid the painful end is to not begin at all.
But honoring our dead and keeping them “with us” is part of how we cope with our losses. Suppressing those memories can deprive us of both joy and comfort.
This may not come naturally to most of us, and may require a bit more “work” on our part. But I do think that making a point of recalling the happy times, of treating our loved ones’ memories as an invitation to laughter, not tears, is a wonderful gift for children. Working Grandma’s favorite recipe into a mealtime, telling Grandpa’s favorite joke, or recounting the copious amounts of liquor Great Aunt Tilly used to consume at Passover every year are all healthy ways of coping—not just with their deaths, but with death in general.
Indeed, giving memories of our dead a happy place among the living benefits us all. Especially our kids.
Yes, there is something undeniably poetic about the idea of heaven. But non-belief can be poetic, too. Maybe you believe, as I do, that, after we die, people simply go back to the same non-existence they experienced (or didn’t experience) before they were born. Maybe you believe that we become memories—not souls—and that the point of living isn’t to get somewhere else but to collect memories that make us happy and “give” memories that make other people happy. Being a good person, the central focus of most major religions, is vital in this scenario because other peoples’ memories are the last vestiges of ourselves. And if their memories of us will be the only part of us left after we die, then our “purpose” is to make those memories as good as we possibly can.