I don’t go on Facebook much. I check every day or so to see if my friend Peter has played his turn in our on-going Scrabble tournament (at the moment, he’s beating me) and sometimes I’ll scan through the feed. I often find links to interesting articles or pick up news of friends. Most recently, I came across a friend posting an appeal about how to tell their child about a playmate who had died. The responses were what you might expect, mostly involving God, Heaven and angels.
I wrote a cynical reply, but thought better of it and deleted it. I don’t want to be one of those people who think that asserting “the truth” is more important than considering someone’s feelings. I have no sympathy for theists who whine when schools or the Government refuse to go along with their particular belief system. But death is tricky. It’s among the most difficult of Life’s misfortunes for any of us to deal with. I’m happy to debate religion under normal circumstances, and in fact, I feel an obligation to present the atheist alternative to counteract theist propaganda (We don’t all hate God, believe in moral anarchy, and suffer in bitterness and materialistic gloom). However, intruding on someone’s grief is just being a jerk.
We didn’t bring up our kids with the supernatural. Oh, we had fun pretending about lots of things. We made up games and imaginary characters. But when a child of any age looks at me in complete seriousness and asks to know the truth, I’m not going to lie. I’m going to explain things as best I can. No, Santa Claus isn’t real. But we can pretend.
That included all the awkward questions. No, you didn’t come to us by stork or cabbage patch. Might have been easier at first to go that route, but it only makes things more difficult in the long run. Withholding information is just prolonging ignorance. If the child is old enough to ask the question, they are old enough for a straight answer. Give them the truth from the start, and they learn that you can be trusted to be honest with them. Put them off with fantasy, and they won’t be sure when they are older if you aren’t doing the same thing when you talk about serious stuff like drugs and sex, lying to them “for their own good”.
But the whole heaven and angels thing is different. People really do believe, and if you contradict them they will only resent it. The tactic may even backfire, with them pitying you because you don’t have the comfort of God. There you both sit, pitying each other for exactly the same reason: each convinced the other is suffering because they can’t accept “the truth”. So there is nothing to be gained by scolding somebody for presenting religious dogma to kids as fact. They honestly think it is fact.
What I have trouble with is an adult doing the equivalent of handing kids a line about the stork, soft-peddling a difficult subject with a fantasy they themselves don’t believe. It starts with doggy or kitty heaven, even if the adult himself does not believe animals have souls. Then they comfort kids whose teacher dies suddenly, assuring them that God wanted Miss Ruth in Heaven to teach all the little children there. Even if the adult has only the vaguest notions of an afterlife, they feel compelled to default to the candy-cane version of Grandma with angel wings looking down on them from atop the Pearly Gates.
I agree, it’s tricky, and one has to consider what is developmentally appropriate for the child. Age figures into it, but the individual child does, too. Some get sophisticated much earlier than others, especially if they’ve been exposed to reality. Farm kids are savvy to where babies come from much sooner than suburban kids. Those who have seen a pet die have a better handle on death when their first close relative or friend dies. It’s always traumatic, but we adults do children no favors by sheltering them from the truth. We help them by being there for them, making sure they know they are loved, and explaining things as best we can.
To the question, “Where do you go when you die?” I think it’s best to admit we just don’t know. Nobody’s gone and come back to tell us about it. What we do know is that everything in the world is connected. The tiny parts that make us up, and make up dogs and cats and houses and toys, once came from stars, and those parts are never lost. They come together to make a person, and when that person dies, those parts go on to make trees, flowers, and other people. So when Mittens dies, maybe there’s a Kitty Heaven and maybe there isn’t. You can pretend if you like. We know Mittens becomes a part of the world again, to return as a bit of the bush that we planted over the place where he’s buried, and also to ride on the wind, to fall with the rain, to bloom in the garden. This much we know for sure.
And yes, some day you will die, too, because everything does eventually. But you, too, will go on. Parts of you will ride the wind, fall with the rain, and bloom in the garden. Parts of you will become another person, a different person, and life will go on. Death is, indeed, only a threshold, a transition. But it isn’t an immortal soul that lives on, some sort of ghost we can’t know about in some paradise we can only imagine. What transforms and goes on is everything that makes you who you are. Even the Earth will die someday, but still it will go on. All the bits that made up its people and animals, its oceans and mountains, will return to the stars from where they came.
No God, no Heaven, no angels. Nothing supernatural. And yet, it is comforting. I could share that explanation with my children, knowing its what I really believe to be true, and they will know it, too. Whatever their stage of sophistication, they can imagine some invisible part of themselves or their beloved pet riding the wind and falling with the rain, or they might understand the concept of atoms and molecules dispersing and recombining.
If they need to, they can pretend about Heaven. That’s fine. I’m here with honest answers when they need them.