How Does an Atheist Explain Death to His Children? August 19, 2008

How Does an Atheist Explain Death to His Children?

From a reader (emphasis mine):

My youngest (daughter, 8yrs old) has been having a difficult time with the concept of dying for a year or two now. It is especially upsetting her at bedtime when she has those quiet moments of thought to herself prior to falling asleep. I have explained to her that our experience after death is just like it was before our birth — none — so it’s not unpleasant. I’ve also told her that, as we age and our bodies get old and tired and we’ve done all there is to do in life, death will not seem so scary — perhaps even welcomed. But I think these concepts are difficult for her to understand or accept right now. We believe in teaching our children how to think (i.e. critical thinking skills), not what to think — so I’ve even explained to her what other people believe and given her permission to believe in heaven, reincarnation, etc. if she wants to, but she dismisses that fairly quickly.

Her older twin brothers (11 yrs old) went through a similar phase but seemed to get through it more quickly. The best results I’ve had so far is giving her relaxation exercises to use at night to keep her mind focused on more pleasant thoughts. But that feels like avoiding the issue instead of resolving it, so I’m curious if others here can provide suggestions that worked for them. Or is this just an unpleasant phase that she has to think through for herself?

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  • TXatheist

    My 4 year old son got to these questions about 6 months ago and we are just honest about when they are dead they are gone. That the pets we’ve known that died are gone. That we protect our son from getting hurt because we don’t want him to die. He’s been really good at grasping it and we tell him we aren’t going to die for a long time(which is true statistically). Maybe in a few years my son will be more upset about it but it’s usually one of those questions that we answer and move on.

  • Dale McGowan (Parenting Beyond Belief) deals with this question frequently. Here is a link to a good discussion of some ways to approach various death (and other) questions:
    I actually have it bookmarked for reference.

  • SarahH

    I don’t know that one ever truly grows out of this kind of fear and fixation on death and its finality. It can sit on the back burner for years and then pop up again when a pet or loved one dies, when a natural disaster hits close to home or during a period of depression.

    I think the only long-term solution to handling these feelings, for children and for adults, is to remember that we’re here now, we’re alive, we have things to learn and places to see and people to meet and love to find. Enjoying the present and looking forward to the future is what ultimately gets me out of bed in the morning and gives me the peace to fall asleep at night.

  • Nick A

    I’m 19, going 20 in one month. I’ve been an athiest for about 6 years, not been a christian for maybe 10. I still have a tough time grasping it. It really hit me this weekend, and I had monday off from work, I watched a documentary on seven ways the world could end, Last Days On Earth. Really shook me up. I’m also very paranoid, so maybe that has something to do with it, but I’m still shaken up by death. I just can’t comprehend not being, not thinking. I also have horrible nightmares about dying by giant tsunamis and by people cutting me up while I sleep, people putting razor blades on my tongue while I sleep and I swallow them and drown from the inside from my own blood.

    Everyone else I know is religious, friends and coworkers, since I work in a historic Moravian Museum as the IT guy. I was dragged to church as a kid and this was before I had a gameboy, so I didn’t do anything really. Sidenote: Choir singing and group singing sounds like evil talking to me, like playing records backwards or ‘snake-speak’, some call it. Hate it.

    Anyway, just be honest with them. I wouldn’t and won’t tell my kids that there is no God, just what I believe and they have to make their own choices. I wish my parents did that. Of course, my father left before I was born because he wasn’t ready to start a family, fyi he did like three years later. Bastard.

  • I actually did a video for this awhile back. I actually start talking about it 50 seconds in.

    Clicky here for video!

  • ailikate

    Is it possible that there is some underlying issue that she is dealing with, but that she either can’t/won’t articulate more clearly? It reminds me of one of the scenarios in Parent Effectiveness Training. Maybe an approach of asking for her thoughts and trying to pinpoint her concerns?

  • Larry Huffman

    Death is frightening. It is so frightening to humans that we have created religion and supersitious beliefs in large part to appease these fears. Even adults who believe in heaven or reincarnation have doubts which lead to fears. Death is just not an easy topic for anyone.

    I think that you may just have to accept that your daughter has and will have death issues. There is nothing unusual or wrong about it. But…treating her view as if it is wrong, or somehow making her feel like she should not feel as she does can make it worse. What I would do (and have done) is to just not make a big deal about her view being different or troubling. Just accept her fears when she tells you about them. Offer your views not as if she should have them…but as an explaination. She should not be made to feel wrong or different for fearing death, however. And you can even tell her that you do not expect her to have your exact view, as it is a personal thing you have to figure out for yourself.

    I had 5 children…our eldest died at the age of 2 1/2. All 4 of my kids (15-20 now) had to go through several talks concerning death…and some of them were fearful just as your daughter is. I decided not to make a big deal about it…and yet have a conversation about it any time they wanted.

    When they would explain their fears…rather than tell them how they should be, I simply told them how I saw it. I also explained to them that when I was a kid and up until just a few years ago, I had a belief in heaven to keep me from being afraid…and so I did not face the same thing as they. But I also pointed out that me thinking there was a heaven was really just me lying to myself about the facts with a made up fantasy that was designed to make me feel better. It seemed to work. Over time, rather than reporting to me they had no fear (which could be a lie just to make themselves and their parents feel better) they would tell me it was not as scary anymore. It is not a fear anyone can just decide to not have. Adults who profess no fear of death can still find themselves dwelling on it sometimes…and it really is frightening at some levels.

    If it is causing nightmares and real problems in her life…such as stress related health issues…I would consider a thereapist. If she is just expressing the fear and seems unable to come to grips with it…well, I believe that it is something she has to go through for herself.

    So…my suggestion…provide all of the answers and conversation she wants or needs on this, but don’t make her feel wrong our out of place for a fear of death (for she is not either one)…and do not place any expectation of immediate resolution on it. Let her know that it can take time and experiences for her to become comfortable with death. Also let her know that many people never are comfortable with it, but they are able to keep their fears from causing them any problems.

  • Aj

    It’s never been interesting to me, I’ve never feared death. Apparantly death anxiety is very common.

    I think the reader is doing the right thing comparing it to before the child existed. I don’t think much can be done past that. Grasping what it’s like to not be there isn’t something available to me.

    Maybe seeing people die, the recent dead, decomposition, burial places, and learning about what happens biologically may help. Learning about the side of death we do know about may familiarize the child with it.

  • Siamang


    You might seek some counseling. Just saying, it sounds like you could use some help dealing.

    To the questioner…

    My girl is 5. This comes up from time to time, but it hasn’t “hit her” in any hard way.

    I would say that “relaxation exercises” is NOT avoiding the question. It’s very, very properly pushing the question to a more appropriate time.

    Just as bedtime is not the time for ghost stories. It’s not the time for physical activity. It’s not the time for cleaning the house or playing basketball… it’s also not the time to wrestle with troubling thoughts.

    You’re the parent. At bedtime, the task at hand is to get a good night’s sleep. At bedtime, the mind has been trained to wander and imagine, because that’s a part of the getting ready for sleep process. The downside of that wandering and imagining mind is that dark thoughts and fears creep in *and are magnified* especially in the mind of a child.

    I disallow jumping on the bed at bedtime. That’s not “avoiding the issue”…. it’s just keeping on the task of putting my child down so that she can get the rest she needs for healthy growth and development.

    Death is much better discussed in moments of clarity and perspective. When the mind is wide-awake and when the child won’t be abandoned in a dark room, alone with their feelings afterward.

    You need to help your daughter better train her imagination so that it’s not a foe, dredging up images to frighten and upset her. Indulging dark thoughts at bedtime is probably not going to help her do that.

    Remember the goal at bedtime is sleep, not satori.

  • QrazyQat

    Children are never too young to learn the phrase “we don’t really know”. They aren’t so frightened of it as people think because they’re used to not knowing things, lots of things. If you want further, this Cectic cartoon gives you a framework that explains the idea well and simply.

  • Alex

    The idea of death is disturbing. It is a great motivator for a lot of our actions, unfortunately even the irrational actions such as religion.

    However, we are working to cure the disease of death. The details of that discussion are complex and not without controversy, but the point is, humans may in the very near future, be able to control the duration of (meaningful, productive, & healthy) life. Steps are being made weekly.

    That may offer some relief from the feelings of hopelessness and futility to a young mind.

    To discover more, read about Ray Kurzweil.

    Although his views are seen as very optimistic about extending human lives, it’s a starting point to find out what minds in the fields of AI, nano-tech, and bio-tech are actually doing to solve the death issue.

    This link to the Methuselah Foundation is probably the most appropriate. Watch the video on the home page. This guy is hell-bent at framing aging as a disease, and has been able to persuade many (highly qualified) skeptics that he is onto something worth while.

    I think the take-away here for a young mind would be to offer encouragement about this plight of ours, and that with time and understanding, we will be able to not worry about aging and death the way we do today. Things are changing fast.

  • My kids are now 13, 11, 10 and 10. Their grandmother (my mother) died 2 years ago and their maternal grandfather died three weeks ago. I’ve tried to express that death isn’t the important part of someone’s life. Rather it is how we live that is important. To others it is what we leave behind or the influence we have. We have beginnings and endings of all sorts in life, death is simply another ending.

    I’ve read that the realisation that the world doesn’t operate just for children and that bad things happen is a shocking time for children. Death anxiety can be a difficult phase. I don’t know because I don’t remember having those feelings.

    I suppose my own kids also missed out on scaring themselves with the idea that everyone is mortal by seeing it first hand. It’s hard to miss the effects of advanced age or terminal cancer even when you’re eight years old. I suppose I should consider it fortunate that they got to see funerals that really were celebrations of life rather than a lamentation of the end of it.

    The vicar that highjacked my mother’s funeral with his proselytising after he’d performed the secular part of it also did a much better job of turning them away from Christianity than I ever could. I’ve not told them that there is no God but equally I haven’t hidden my opinions. As with most everything, honesty is usually the best policy.

    At eight years they have many questions and some idea of the answers, Kids always know more than they can express or that we give them credit for so I’d suggest honest and direct answers are better than confusing them with stories of living after death or winged people who live in clouds.

    Above all I think it is important to demonstrate that death isn’t something to be feared. You can do this by just talking about it and explaining that we don’t really know what happens after you die. Some people believe in reincarnation, some in an afterlife, some in an ending. You can probably point to friends and family who have these very beliefs. If your comfortable talking about it then she won’t pick up that the subject is taboo.

  • N

    This may not help you solve your problem, but it may help you understand it and perhaps deal with it with more confidence.

    I grew up a christian. When I was very young, I had no doubts about God and heaven and Jesus and eternal life. I was still very, very frightened of death.

    Now that my beliefs are changing and I am moving further and further from my theistic view of the world, I am still terrified of death. I’m terrified of my own death, I’m terrified of the deaths that will inevitably occur in my family, I’m terrified of the deaths of strangers I hear of daily.

    My young daughter (12), who has gone from having some christian theistic belief to complete and confident atheism, does not have the death issues that I have. Of course, like any human, she occasionally has death anxieties, but she does not dwell on it nor suffer over it the way I always have. She has a healthy, normal death anxiety.

    I guess that is the long way of saying that I don’t think a person’s views of the supernatural and the afterlife (or lack thereof) have any bearing over his or her feelings regarding death. All humans fear death to some degree; some merely have a deeper and more intense fear than others. It is something your daughter will have to work through. What I believe she needs is your love and understanding. Let her talk to you about her fears, and listen and accept her feelings. Show her all the love you have for her and comfort her with your patience.

    A fantastic book on human death anxiety is Denial of Death by Ernest Becker (1973).

  • Isn’t “avoiding the issue” basically what we all do most of the time? If you really think about it, death lurks around every corner. You could get hit by a truck every time you step out your front door. Most of us get through our lives by simply not sparing it much (or sometimes any) thought. Part of the lure of religion is that it gives us a false sense of security that we are actually dealing with the issue.

  • Explain to young children that we are all part of the same cosmic soup at a sub-atomic level. Tell them that we constantly exchange tiny bits of ourselves with each other and that when we die our sub-atomic particles become parts of other things; a blade of grass, their favorite animal, loved ones, etc…

    Also explain that the relationships we have with those in our lives continues even after we’re gone. We affect people long after we are dead and those good memories of us motivate our loved ones to do good in this world. In a sense, we are eternal even if our body is gone.

  • Reed Byers

    If it’s a “phase”, then it’s a phase that can last 30 years and counting, in my personal experience.

    Ever since I was a teenager, anytime I allow myself to think about death for any period of time, it sends me spiralling into a major panic attack.

    I have this urge, this need, to “solve the problem” — to think about it until it no longer bothers me. But there *IS* no solution. For me, “living forever” is as repugnant as simply “stopping”, and BOTH are utterly intolerable.

    My answer — my only answer, after decades of panic attacks and years of counseling — is not to think about it. The instant my mind wanders close to the edge of the black hole, I mentally “yell at myself” and jerk my thoughts back onto a safe topic.

    It’s hard. How do you even address “not thinking about a problem”, without thinking about it? But after years of suffering, I’ve built up pretty good “mental reflexes”.

    I think this is why humans invented “gods” in the first place — to avoid having to think about problems like this…

  • I’ll be 21 in a month, but I still have hang ups about this. Honestly, the knowledge that there’s probably absolutely nothing after death is the one thing that makes me wish I wasn’t an atheist. There are times where I definitely wouldn’t mind being wrong just so I could get the comfort out of it… but I know I can’t force myself to believe what I’m pretty sure isn’t true.

    The only thing that ever works for me is to just try not to think about it. It’s hard and inefficient, but that’s all I can do. Like some of the posters above, I still dwell on it sometimes, and it’s probably the main cause of my worries and depression. Hopefully you can teach you daughter to be an optimistic thinker and focus on the good things in life. Dwelling on death can get you really down =\

  • BongoBob

    Jack Handey, of “Deep Thoughts” (from Saturday Night Live) fame, had this to say:

    “My young son asked me what happens after we die. I told him we get buried under a bunch of dirt and worms eat our bodies. I guess I should have told him the truth – that most of us go to Hell and burn eternally – but I didn’t want to upset him.”

    I just discovered Friendly Atheist a few weeks ago and find it quite congenial.

  • BongoBob

    Ah, and Albert Camus said this:

    “When you have accepted death, the problem of God will be solved – and not the reverse.”

  • I guess I don’t understand that fear, Jennifurret. I feel I am part of the universe, the universe is eternal, (or seems to be to us since our lifetime is so short), so I feel I am, in a way, eternal. I may not have consciousness after this body dies but life goes on and I consider all life part of me and I am part of all life. Knowing that I am part of the fabric of life brings me comfort.

    The only thing that does make me sad is the thought of leaving my children. I don’t want them to feel sad and alone because I am gone. When I think about that I cry.

    Reed, you sound as though anxiety has a pretty strong hold on you. I’m sorry. I hope things get better for you.

  • My oldest is 5, and I’ve explained it in a similar manner to what Rayven has said. I’ve explained it’s part of life, as natural as being born, and that my belief is that when I die I become part of the multitude. A form of immortality.

    To her, the thought of maybe becoming a spider keeps her sane. For now. I know the questions will get bigger as she grows. I’ve been focusing on having a stable dialogue about it and making it no big deal.

    I don’t fear death, which I think helps the discussion.

  • Julie Marie

    we just went through the death issue with our 11 year old dog. I explained that Chessie just quit breathing, and that I tried CPR but it didn’t work, so Mr. Tom (our neighbor) helped me take her body to the vet, and they would change her body to ashes by cremation. I wasn’t sure if this was too much information, so I stopped, but he asked a follow on question so I told him we have her changed to ashes so we can bury her in the back yard under her favorite tree. He’s smart emough to understand burying a 100 lb dog in its natural state would be an awfully hard thing to do.

    He was fine with the dry facts – until our religious neighbor came over and started crying about people who say there’s no dogs in heaven. Good grief. Cody looked at me for the scoop and I was stuck. I didn’t want to go theological with my fundy friend sobbing on the couch so I just yammerred about how some people call that “happy hunting grounds” and what we remember about chestnut is how she loved to run and chase balls, etc. He accepted that without further comment.

    He hasn’t asked about Mommy or Daddy dying – I guess I’ll tell him that is why we work hard to make healthy choices, so we can live a long time and enjoy him as he grows up and then play with his children, if he decides he wants children.

  • Elsin Ann Perry

    When I think of my death, which is a lot closer than that of most people’s, I remember Richard Dawkins’ “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia….in the the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.”

    I am so lucky to have been born, to have experienced this life! I can’t ask for more.

    And I’m sorry I have no answers for the original questioner.

  • My son, between the ages of 6-12, used to be extremely preoccupied with death and aging. The subject seemed to always come at bedtime. Perhaps getting ready to go to sleep, which children may somehow connect to the idea of death, brings up fears that are not present during the day when they are actively involved with other things.

    A child psychologist told us that he had worry and anxiety issues. Psychotherapy was recommended, but we decided against it. We just continued to openly discuss it whenever it came up. We presented him with all schools of thought that we know of, as we do with any subject.

    I personally believe that we are more than just our bodies and that death, in a way, is the beginning of something else. There’s no anxiety and no fear…just a slight sense of regret/excitement (?).

    When people get consumed with thoughts about death, they forget how to live.

    My son is now 14, in great psychological health, and no longer struggles with those thoughts. He has naturally outgrown them. He is, for now at least, pretty comfortable with the idea of death.

    Death is a part of life. We all have to face it at one point or another. There’s nothing wrong or bad about it.

  • 5ive

    I think a good idea for any child (or adult for that matter)with death anxiety is to ask them what they think happens after death and why. tell them what you think and why. Tell them what other people think and why they think that and you don’t. Give them some options. Open up the conversation and find out exactly what it is that freaks them out.
    I have a lot of skulls around (for artwork) and my kids have grown up around them. We also spend a good amount of time talking about how the body works, what makes it die, etc. There is a great radio lab show about mortality that kids can listen to with their parents. Great for opening up discussions.
    While I do have a slight fixation with bones and biology, I have never had any death anxiety. I only feel bad for those who will grieve my death. Me, I will no longer exist, so I could care less about that part.
    Nick, I used to have weird dreams/ideas like that, too. Now that I have kids, they are usually about scenarios in which someone breaks into our house and I have to defend my kids. Yuck. The best way I have found to get them to stop is to start thinking about how I would spend a billion dollars. changes your train of thought right-quick! 🙂

  • Tao Jones

    Well, I’m not a parent but I did come to terms with my mortality at a fairly young age (12 or 13 or so) based on an epiphany I had.

    Everything dies… and death is a very important part of life. Death is what lets new things grow. As individuals we’re just one tiny part in a larger ecosystem. It’s that insignificance in the grand scheme of things that makes us special. Every breath we take is precious as is every opportunity we have to do good and show our loved ones how much we appreciate them. Mortality reminds us not to take anything for granted.

    Personally, I’m kind of looking forward to rotting away as I feel it is completely repaying the debt for all I have taken from the world. I’m food and I’m more than comfortable with my body feeding worms and maggots. That might be a little much for an 8 year old… but… still.

    Another way I look at it is that I hope to love my children so much that they will pass on my love to their children. I hope to teach them to laugh and learn and love life. When they teach their children the same things, it will be my love of life being passed on. So if she’s had a pet that she loved, remind her that she still remembers and loves that pet even after it passed away… just like people are going to continue to love her after she dies many, many years from now.

    So help her appreciate life rather than fearing death. After all, we’re here for a good time, not a long time.

  • I do think that getting short lived pets (rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, etc) does help to prepare a child for death and aging. That’s in addition to the fun of caring for a beastie. Birds and fish seem to be able to live forever. So do cats for that matter.

    We’ve had dozens of animals over the years and the kids loved each one of them. when they inevitably die they quickly come to terms with it and gorw up accepting that it is naturally a part of living.

  • “Daddy, what happens to us after we die?”
    “No one knows. I doubt anything happens. But if you live this life right, then once should be good enough.”
    — Karim Temple, giving example of how he, as an agnostic atheist father, might respond to the child he may have some day, in regards to the topic of afterlife, in re: “WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?

  • I don’t fear my own death, but I do very much mourn the loss of my loved ones when they die.

    About my own death I have two comforting frameworks.

    I play in the ocean a lot, and love feeling carried by the water. When I swim, or even just watch the ocean, I feel I’m on the edge of eternity or death, and all my problems are behind me. It’s an incredibly peaceful feeling. The ocean, or life, plays with me, like a child, and then sends me back to the world. But one day life will keep me and I’ll be absorbed back into the swarming, pulsating, growing, changing energy of life.

    My personality, my memories, my possessions, my relationships – all would pale if I had the consciousness to care. I’ll still be here – not as I – but as part of all life. This brings me peace, not anxiety.

    Sometimes I do a meditation where I let go of all these things. I start with the easy stuff, the bills, and move on, letting go of every desire and attachment. It’s very liberating. By the end, all that’s left is peace and quiet. I think it’s practice for death.

    My second thought has to do with my family. I have a very big family and imagine each member as a page in a very big book. My page is not finished, but one day will be. I’ll be there in that book with all my aunts and uncles, cousins, etc. They lived and died, just like I will. Even in death they are necessary to our family. I suppose these thoughts are close to ancestor veneration, but this has also brought me peace.

    I think Christianity brings a dread of death because it refuses to look at life as a cycle. We’re born “badly” in a bloody mess, are born again the right way through the cerebral word of a man, and then we die and go to heaven. Only no one has ever seen heaven and no one, I don’t believe even Christians, believes it exists. Christianity is linear. Beginning…end. No cycle. Christianity does not describe the truth of life and death.

    We used to see birth and life and death and birth again every day and understood well our place in the cycle. With Christianity and modernity we no longer have that comfort. We no longer know our place in life, and so are afraid to die.

    I think if parents helped their children grow little gardens, even window sill gardens, and the children could see the complete cycles of life again and again, their anxieties would lessen.

    But, hell, what do I know?

    Two movies – “Jacob’s Ladder” and “Thin Red Line” – really helped me come to terms with death.

  • M

    I favor certain humanistic views on death that have comforted me for my whole life; and, I suspect will continue to do so until it ends:

    “I was dead for millions of years before I was born and it never inconvenienced me a bit.” – Mark Twain (Attributed)

    “Accustom yourself to believing that death is nothing to us, for good and evil imply the capacity for sensation, and death is the privation of all sentience; therefore a correct understanding that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life enjoyable, not by adding to life a limitless time, but by taking away the yearning after immortality. For life has no terrors for him who has thoroughly understood that there are no terrors for him in ceasing to live. Foolish, therefore, is the man who says that he fears death, not because it will pain when it comes, but because it pains in the prospect. Whatever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation. Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not. It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer. But in the world, at one time men shun death as the greatest of all evils, and at another time choose it as a respite from the evils in life. The wise man does not deprecate life nor does he fear the cessation of life. The thought of life is no offense to him, nor is the cessation of life regarded as an evil.” – Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus”

    “The soul, therefore, if immortal, existed before our birth; and if the former existence noways concerned us, neither will the latter.” – David Hume, “On The Immortality of the Soul” (1755)

    “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing to us. ” – Epicurus, “Principle Doctrines,” Maxim 2.

    “Life is a vacation from two eternities, who wants to waste those precious years worrying about what happens when you get back to forever?” – William S. Burroughs

    “Any doctrine is suspect if it is favoured by our passions. The hopes and fears that gave rise to this doctrine of the soul’s immortality are very obvious. ” – David Hume, “The Immortality of the Soul” (1755)

    “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a rainy afternoon.” – Susan Ertz

    “Whoever says he knows that immortality is a fact is merely hoping that it is so.” – Carl Van Doren, “Why I am an Unbeliever”

  • M

    Don’t fear death; fear not living.

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