Dealing with Death without the Supernatural

12 12 2014

tree and stars

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.

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6 responses

13 12 2014
Mary Jolles

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful discussion on death. Children especially find death terrifying, mainly because it involves a permanent separation from those we love–a thought which is quite unendurable to a child emotionally dependent upon his or her parents. Hence the temptation to lie to the child to make it seem “all right” by assuring them that the person continues to exist on some plane or other.

Physical death repels some people but I was raised by parents who thought of death as a natural return of borrowed resources to the ecosystem. My mother expressed frequently her desire to be buried, unembalmed, in her own vegetable garden, and my father, who built gas separation plants as a chemical engineer, talked about how fitting his cremation after his own anticipated death would be–returning the hydrocarbons of which his body was made to the atmosphere, to be used by other living organisms.

You are absolutely right that to intrude on a family’s grief with your own explanation of death or the afterlife is tacky. Just saying “I’m so sorry” is generally enough. When children ask questions, saying “I don’t know” is perfectly acceptable also.

The spirit of a human being–well, at least some human beings–is sometimes so strong and memorable that we find it hard to imagine that the spirit simply ceases to exist after death. That spirit sometimes continues as a vivid memory in the subconscious of individuals who knew and loved them–as when, after my mother died in 2003, my sister dreamed she was having a frustrating conversation with my mother, who stubbornly refused to believe she had died!

Jesus, who was very fond of metaphors, often spoke of the spirit as if it were a living thing, needing nourishment if it was to avoid death. But whether the spirit lives beyond the life of the body… Well, Jesus makes reference, as all good Jews did in his day, to the Day of Reckoning or Day of Judgment, when souls were said to actually enter Heaven or Hell, but that is a long time in the future–perhaps an infinite time. The Kingdom of Heaven, however, he refers to frequently as if it is a state of being to be attained while one is still alive. When one man comes up to him and asks, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus does not respond by referring to “eternal life” but instead mentions only “If you would enter life…” In other words, if you want to have a living spirit rather than a dead one, here’s how. In talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus refers to “living water” which the spirit drinks, as opposed to just plain water, which the body drinks.

So…what happens after death? I like the image of my father’s and mother’s molecules floating around the Universal Exchange and becoming part of new living things–that’s as it should be. Their “spirits” are with me!

15 12 2014
heretherebespiders

I know someone who has a very smart little girl. One of her classmates just died, aged 8. They actually asked in FB what to say to her… I’m surprised, as these parents don’t seem the type to be stymied by anything. I guess they weren’t expecting such a reaction from their daughter… But I’m still not going to say a word. What do I know about easing a child’s pain? Nothing.

15 12 2014
justinegraykin

Indeed. I’d feel comfortable addressing my own children (having done so, not always brilliantly, but both kids are still speaking to me so I guess I didn’t muck it up too badly) but other people’s kids? And I have to admit, it is more that I’d fear the repercussions from parental disapproval. How dare I contradict what they’ve been telling their kids. This is what happens in a diverse society when we don’t all subscribe to the same myths and moral codes. A Christian might tolerate an atheist neighbor, until that neighbor starts talking to their kids.

16 12 2014
Mary Jolles

There was an interesting case here in NH some years ago…I happen to know about it because it involved a teacher and I was interested and followed it. A boy was drowned accidentally–I think he was 9 or 10–and of course everyone was saddened. The parents were stricken with grief. The teacher–I don’t know what she was thinking–took it upon herself not only to “inform” the partners that their son was experiencing a happy afterlife, but that she, the teacher, knew this because he had communicated spiritually with her!! The parents were outraged but even more so when the teacher kept trying to pass on “messages” from the boy. Eventually the parents sought legal help in keeping the teacher away from them. This is an extreme case, but according to the article, the teacher was not crazy, only “well-meaning.” But she clearly stepped over the bounds.

In answering your own kids’ questions about anything (death, sex, etc.) a safe place to start is by asking the kid, “Well, what do you want to know?” Often what happens is we give kids more information than they were looking for. My response to students who asked tough questions was, “This is something you should talk with your parents about.”

17 12 2014
justinegraykin

Yow. That teacher had a very twisted idea of “well-meaning”. I wonder by what criteria she was judged not to be crazy? I suppose having appallingly bad judgement is not the same as insanity. But it’s got to slide close.

As for kids’ questions, you’re absolutely right. Often they are quite happy with something much simpler than one might have offered. Your response of “talk to your parents” makes sense. Unfortunately, not all parents will give kids the straight answers they want and need. Where do they go then? Too often, to their peers, who are usually as ignorant as they are. The consequences can be dire, especially in matters of sexual behavior or substance abuse. Or, these days, they can Google for answers. A good argument for teaching kids early how to do effective searches and know reliable sources from bullshit.

18 12 2014
Mary Jolles

We still live in an age when parental rights still give ultimate power to a mother and father to guide the intellectual, ethical and spiritual thinking and attitudes of their children–unless, of course, the child is in imminent danger of death through their parents’ behavior. Much as I often disagreed with certain parents, I felt that it would be confusing to a young child to introduce a completely different way of seeing things. The first consequence would only be to cause the child to say, “if you’re right, then my parents are wrong.” I once watched a motivational speaker encouraging students never to smoke cigarettes approach a small child in the front row, who began to cry under the relentless exhortation of the speaker, who was urging the child to promise publicly “never to smoke.” Both the child’s parents smoked cigarettes! Imagine the kid’s confusion.

I’m not sure why those parents on FaceBook were looking for advice from others as to what to say to their own child. What do they themselves believe about death? Surely their own beliefs will be good enough for now–unless they already realize that their super smart child is capable of thinking for herself and won’t permit anyone to fob off a half-assed answer on her. In which case, I think they should have an honest discussion with their child, e.g. “Some people think this, and some people think that…what do you think?” and let her choose the belief that most satisfies her own needs at this time.

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