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Discussing Death With Infants


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Hi everyone

 

Today I was listening to an article on the radio about people dealing with the aftermath of losing a loved one.  One particular story really affected me, and it has left me thinking about how we deal with death as atheists and non believers.

 

A woman described how her husband was brutally murdered in an unprovoked attack, leaving behind herself and their four year old son.  The mother explained how she had felt moved to tell her son that his Daddy had gone away, because he had been called away by God, and he was now in a happy place.

 

The four year old son had remained confused about this for a while.  He asked - why has Daddy left his car behind if he has gone to Heaven?  His mother told him that he would have a new better car in Heaven.

 

The asking of a question like this, shows clearly how difficult children find it to deal with the concept of death, but also of the concept of a place like Heaven.

 

The story had a horrible sting.  One day the mother found her little boy attempting to hang himself with the cord of a his dressing gown.  Asked what he was doing, the boy said that he wanted to go and be with his Daddy.  Horrified, the mother told him that if he killed himself he wouldn't go to Heaven, he would go to another place where he wouldn't be with his Daddy.

 

The interview itself was not about the issue of God and Heaven, and so the interviewer did not press on these details; focussing more on the emotional difficulties involved with the aftermath of the death of a loved one.  For me though, the parts of the story about God and Heaven (and Hell, though it was not specifically named) were very troubling.  Though, I would say, that I don't specifically criticise the woman in this particular case.

 

It leads me to wonder - as secular humanists - how do we tell our young children about death?  How do we explain to the children, at the saddest point of our own life, that the person we love is is gone, and we will never be able to see them again.

 

How does one communicate this idea that the person has simply ceased to exist?  Can a child understand this?  Can a child cope with such bluntness?  Is it kinder to tell a child a lie when they are young, or is this irresponsible in the long term?

 

I would love to hear your views, and experiences about this, if anyone is able and willing to share.  I appreciate it is a sensitive subject.

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wow, that is a tough question. my sister's cat just died and her three kids (5, 7 &9) think the cat is in cat heaven as that is what my sister told them. So I am fine to go along with it and make up descriptions of 'cat heaven' with them as they mourn their cat. People heaven has come up but I felt uncomfortable confirming that such a place existed. My sister, however, does believe but is very liberal. I did notice that the 9 year old seemed to be able to cope with the fact that her grandparents are old and will die. In fact she jokingly tells my parents they'll be dead soon and does not mention heaven. She really does seem to be able to accept death without needing heaven. The 5 year old however cannot comprehend dead and gone, she always assumes there is simply another place they go. I guess it depends on the child, and the upbringing as to what concepts they can comprehend. The 7 year old is a skeptic already and he is already starting to tear apart the concept of god, which is wonderful to see as he is thinking for himself. My sister and her husbands family are catholic so the children are highly exposed to the christian doctrine.

 

If a spouse died I can imagine it would be difficult being an atheist parent with christian family and community around you as many would be telling your kids the other parent is in heaven (or hell..) and this would confuse a grieving child. The above situation shows just how seriously a child takes this information so we must all be very careful what we tell children. Is not the real truth that NONE of us know what happens after we die? We can make an educated guess but not know for sure. Maybe giving the child this answer along with the fact that some people believe x & y and then perhaps discuss what the child thinks to be the most logical answer (depending on their age of course). I know my 7 year old nephew would be able to accept there is no god and no heaven as it makes logical sense to him.

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I think it makes a big difference if you don't shield them from death and talk about it as a normal part of life. At 4 they still won't really understand it, but when they do it will not be as big of a deal.

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I think modern people in developed nations have an unhealthy aversion to being open about death. I personally have to deal with grief by being very blunt about it. My loved one didn't "leave" and they're not "in a better place". They are dead. I will never, ever see them, hear from them, or interact with them in any way ever again in this life. Trying to pretend otherwise just makes me hurt more later. I don't want a false hope, I don't want temporarily comforting lies becuase that doesn't prepare me to face the pain of my loneliness when something triggers my memories.

 

Modern healthcare and nutrition and stuff means that we in the richer areas of the world don't see death very often. Many of us live in cities where we don't even see animals and plants dying all the time. Our ancestors likely had a more complete understanding of death from an earlier age. So though kids may not really get it, I don't think we need to shield them from the knowledge. And especially, adults shouldn't act afraid of the topic around kids, because kids will pick up on that fear and be afraid of death and afraid of talking about death. Don't add that emotional baggage to it. Admit to the kids that it's sad and it hurts, and that that's how grieving goes. Cry in front of them and don't be ashamed about doing so. Tell them that the person is gone (at least for the rest of this life - heaven isn't always that comforting for right here and right now), and that it's ok to have strong feelings about that as long as they do not harm anyone else while acting on those feelings - teaching them how to grieve in a healthy manner may help them not to lash out at parents and siblings when they're full of negative emotions. Maybe ask them if there's anything they want to do to honor the person's memory, like visit the gravesite or look at pictures or eat a food attached to special memories. Also, they're young and may not get it yet, so be prepared for them to not care at all, and maybe appear uncaring about how upset you are about your loss. They may not have the mental framework yet to get the idea of "gone forever". Let their questions be a guide for what they need to talk about, and of course, tell them that questions are ok and welcome.

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whe re was this interview I would like to see it. also I have two kids that are very aware of death. we've rode past grave yards and said that once you die they put you in the dirt so I know they are confused when my wide tells them that great grandpa is in heaven. we also had to explain why there was a small casket. my kids even came home and said " so and so said she didn't know that kids could die" no clue what type of conversation that was. and I know their parent probably hate me. I found that ki ds aren't stupid once they grasp the concept that you can get hurt so bad that you don't wake up so then we put you in the dirt. it's a done deal. off course the religitards make it worse by saying the body is the re but the soul is somewhere else. point is that a secular concept of death seemed to be quite simple for my kids.

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I was raised in an atheist/agnostic household, so I'll share what my mom told me. 

 

When I was young, I had a next door neighbor named Karen. Karen was my favorite babysitter, but she was killed along with her boyfriend in a terrible car accident when I was 5 or 6. 

 

I remember my mom called me in from playing in the playroom, and I could tell that she had been crying. We sat down at the kitchen table, and she took my hand and said that Karen and her boyfriend had been in a car accident and had died. 

 

I didn't know what "died" meant exactly, just that it was something really bad because my mom was upset. Mom told me that when our bodies get old, they stop working for good, and that's what we call "death." Sometimes, if we get really, really, sick or hurt, they stop working for good. She said that Karen's body had gotten hurt so bad it couldn't work anymore and that we wouldn't be seeing her again. 

 

I remember her saying, "You know how you go to sleep at night time and it seems like only a few minutes have passed till morning? And how you don't remember anything until you wake up? Death is like that, only you don't wake up." 

 

The rest of the conversation was kind of hazy, but she just let me ask questions after that.  I did ask at one point, "Where do we go when we die?" My mom said, "I don't know, dear. Nobody does."

 

She did explain that some people think we leave our bodies behind and go to a place called Heaven. I asked if she thought Karen was in Heaven. She said, "I don't know, sweet. Nobody does. But I don't think death is a bad thing. It's something we all go through." 

 

Mostly after that I just started worrying that my mom and dad and brother were going to die, or I was going to die. Mom kept reassuring me that we were all fine and safe and not going anywhere. 

 

Thinking back on it now, I think it was a pretty good explanation for what I needed at the time. Our neighbors were our friends, so we went to the funeral. It was a Christian funeral, so I kept hearing that Karen was in Heaven with her boyfriend and that was one of my first experiences with Christianity. 

 

I think it's OK to tell the truth in simplistic terms to your child, depending on their ages. It's OK to say "I don't know," to your children if you really don't know. Mostly at the time of death, they want reassurance you aren't going anywhere. 

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Sounds like your mother handled that fantastically, Kurari. I agree that it's perfectly fine to tell children you don't know, better than telling them what to believe.

 

When my brother died a friend of the family wanted to read that "do not stand at my grave and weep" poem at the funeral, which has stuff about, "I am not dead, I'm just asleep," in it. My first reaction was, "definitely not, there will be children there, it will confuse them," and my mum said she'd felt the same.

 

My cousins were, at the time, aged 6, 9 and 11, and we'd also lost our grandad 6 months prior. I've had some conversations with the older two, and it's clear they believe in Heaven and I don't feel it's my place to challenge that in someone else's children. Here in the UK they will be exposed to other beliefs and come to form their own. It's difficult though, I do feel I have to bite my tongue at times.

 

I do think you can talk frankly to children, without needing to be blunt. You can talk about the atoms that made up the person going back into the ground and helping the plants to grow, or about their memory always existing in your heart. I personally don't find the lack of an afterlife troubling, and I think you can explain it to children in ways that don't need to cause distress.

 

Children can misinterpret anything. Some people talk about death as being like sleep, and children can develop fears of sleep. Telling children that people get old and then die can make them fear that all old people are about to die (and to a child, most people seem old). You can try to let them know they can ask about any concerns they have so that you can offer reassurance. But it's very difficult when you are grieving a close loss as well, all you can do is your best.

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I agree with the comments about modern culture. Death - and grief, by association - has become the great taboo, to replace sex, in a sense. I was raised an atheist, by ex-Catholic parents, with a rather more Catholic extended family. One major factor was that I was lucky enough to have known my great grandmother, who was really from a different time and culture, when it came to the subject of death: she was born in 1900. Death, as she saw it, was the bookend on life's shelf. We spent hours together, doing things that would be considered sick or morbid, from a more modern point of view, like discussing funeral details, walking through cemeteries, visiting the plots picked out for various family members - living or deceased. One of the family treasures - kept by my mother - is a lock of my mother's namesake's hair, and a scrap of her burial shroud. It's a sort-of hobby of mine to rescue family bibles (ironic, huh) from the bargain bin of antique stores. I don't know how they wind up there, but I've rescued two so far. It just seems wrong to throw away something with a record of every birth and death in the family penned in the front. My most exciting rescue was one with a memorial hair wreath in front, and a letter between the pages from the air force to the mother of a young man killed while performing an instrumentation run on super typhoon Ophelia (1958). It was one day from the trash, and 75% off. There's something truly obscene about that. Somebody should remember. After all, the rituals surrounding death are really there for the living. Memento mori. The fact that we don't acknowledge death at all, and instead hide it from polite eyes with a cloak of euphemisms, means that we give no chance to the grief-stricken to truly grieve. "Bad feelings" in general are stigmatized, and it's doing a lot of harm - life is about the good as well as the bad, birth as well as death.

 

I also agree with the idea of being a straight shooter with your kids. And, "I don't know" or, "nobody knows, honey" is a perfectly acceptable answer.

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Death is handled very badly in our modern culture. In agrarian cultures kids see it all the time.. a chicken or pig is slaughtered, animals die of illness. I've never told my child when she witnessed an animal dead by the road, or any relative that has passed that 'they are in a better place'.. I don't know where they are, if anywhere.. and I don't believe in lying to children, about anything, anytime.

 

In Victorian times the body was left in the parlour for a day or two for the family and friends to view and say their goodbyes... extended mourning periods were expected, none of this.. get over it already stuff.. grief was honored. Birth was at home too.. so the cycle of life wasn't this big mystery that happened at the hospital.

 

I've heard of people who don't allow their small children at funerals... I think that's wrong. Children need to be involved and witness reality, and see how others handle grief and loss.. and not be told fairy tales... death is a permanent state, at least as far as we can tell, and children aren't stupid - just lacking experience. It's our job to help them navigate reality, not avoid it.

 

I agree that "I don't know" is the best answer.. and honoring the loss... and celebrating the time and experiences we had with that person also.

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In the book Raising Freethinkers, the author had some good suggestions for addressing this topic with children.  There were also some children's books that approach the subject.  I got one of them, A Log's Life, which talks about a tree that falls in the forest, and all of the animals that live off the dead/dying tree, until it eventually becomes dirt and new seeds grow out of the rich soil.  While that is not how I would discuss human death, I am treating it as a first foray into the subject of the cyclical nature of life.

 

I agree that it is important to talk about death with children and not shield them from the reality of life.  And "I don't know what happens after we die" is an excellent answer to that question.

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I come from a culture where viewings of open caskets are considered normal and needful. I've seen young children, toddlers, lifted up by a parent to see the body reposing peacefully inside the coffin. It's an agricultural society where children see dead animals from infancy and this exposure to death in humans helps them understand the life cycle common to all creatures. At the funeral of a child, one especially sees children passing the open coffin for viewing. I do not think that people in my culture, child or adult, have an unhealthy attitude toward death.

 

It is true that children in my culture are told the diseased has gone to heaven. But I don't think the eighteen-month-olds and two-year-olds I've seen lifted to view the body understood any concepts of an afterlife.

 

I have seen the confusion of young children who were told that "Grandma is in heaven," yet they see her lying in the coffin. One mother I know of explained to her child, "The part that was really Grandma is in heaven." The child was old enough to see that a fundamental change had taken place, i.e. Grandma was no longer moving, seeing, talking. I'm sharing this because I'm thinking it might be another way of helping urban children understand death.There is the part we can see (which does not change all that much in death) and the part that "is really Grandma" when she sees, talks, moves, etc. It's the latter part that is missing permanently in death.

 

I personally think it's gross to discuss the disintegration of the body so I wouldn't think it should be discussed with young children. Maybe that has to do with my having seen and smelled dead animal bodies left to decompose with flies and maggots. Then again, possibly that explanation is better than just burying the body like garbage, I dunno. There's so many ways of looking at it and everyone--including children--reacts differently. I was taught to think the person is permanently at rest. I like the idea and I think it's true. The struggles and difficulties of life on this planet are definitely over.

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One thing I have learned over the years is to explain things to children in a way in which they are not left with stupid stories floating around in their heads. My wife and I have always included our son in funerals and weddings and births. Children respond to events in the manner in which their parents respond. We have never given a BS explanation to what happens when we die. Parents who cannot spend ten minutes explaining honestly to their kids the facts of life, really should not have children.

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I personally think it's gross to discuss the disintegration of the body so I wouldn't think it should be discussed with young children. Maybe that has to do with my having seen and smelled dead animal bodies left to decompose with flies and maggots. Then again, possibly that explanation is better than just burying the body like garbage, I dunno. There's so many ways of looking at it and everyone--including children--reacts differently. I was taught to think the person is permanently at rest. I like the idea and I think it's true. The struggles and difficulties of life on this planet are definitely over.

I agree - I didn't mean to imply that I'm going to teach my children about death by talking about decaying human bodies!  Wendytwitch.gif

 

But my 5-year-old has asked questions about why dinosaur bones are all that's left of the dinosaurs, so the book about the log's life was helpful in answering that question.  It's only natural that kids are going to have questions about death.  What I find most difficult is not being honest with them, but finding words to explain things that they can understand.  Discussing death in the plant and animal world seem to be good first steps before tackling discussions of what happens to people when they die.

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I personally think it's gross to discuss the disintegration of the body so I wouldn't think it should be discussed with young children. Maybe that has to do with my having seen and smelled dead animal bodies left to decompose with flies and maggots. Then again, possibly that explanation is better than just burying the body like garbage, I dunno. There's so many ways of looking at it and everyone--including children--reacts differently. I was taught to think the person is permanently at rest. I like the idea and I think it's true. The struggles and difficulties of life on this planet are definitely over.

I agree - I didn't mean to imply that I'm going to teach my children about death by talking about decaying human bodies!  Wendytwitch.gif

 

But my 5-year-old has asked questions about why dinosaur bones are all that's left of the dinosaurs, so the book about the log's life was helpful in answering that question.  It's only natural that kids are going to have questions about death.  What I find most difficult is not being honest with them, but finding words to explain things that they can understand.  Discussing death in the plant and animal world seem to be good first steps before tackling discussions of what happens to people when they die.

 

 

I actually like the idea of my body decomposing better than the idea of being filled with fermaldahyde and preserved in a giant sealed box. I'd like my body to stay around long enough for people to say their goodbyes, but after that.... I don't want to waste the space and resources that such preservation entails. I'd love to be burried in a wooden box and gradudually (and out of sight of my loved ones who'd be freaked out by it) be recycled back into nature. It is comforting to me to think that even once I'm dead, my body will still have something left to contribute to the cycle of life, and that the pieces of me will in that sense live again. I guess to me it's a sort of reincarnation. I'd even be fine with a sky burrial, but that wouldn't go over well in our culture and may be a little too tramatic for the living.

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I just looked up sky burial. Yes, it sounds like a marvelous, holistic idea—that definitely won’t fly in western cultures.

 

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I just looked up sky burial. Yes, it sounds like a marvelous, holistic idea—that definitely won’t fly in western cultures.

 

Yeaaaah. No. *L* 

 

WARNING: Read this before you look up what a sky burial is! 

 

For those wondering, I feel the need to clarify what this is so nobody gets an unpleasant surprise: In Tibet and other places where the ground is too hard to dig in, they traditionally take their deceased to charnel grounds and place them on TOP of the ground. Often, they also take the time to cut the body parts up so they can decompose faster. The bodies are then scavenged by wildlife such as vultures, and left to decompose and go back to the earth in that fashion. 

 

So if you look up "Sky Burial" you are going to see pictures of people hacking bodies into pieces and it's really graphic. 

 

It's also common practice of Tibetan monks to go to these charnel grounds to sit and meditate on death so they can get over their fears over this part of life. Quite fascinating stuff. 

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I just looked up sky burial. Yes, it sounds like a marvelous, holistic idea—that definitely won’t fly in western cultures.

 

Yeaaaah. No. *L* 

 

WARNING: Read this before you look up what a sky burial is! 

 

For those wondering, I feel the need to clarify what this is so nobody gets an unpleasant surprise: In Tibet and other places where the ground is too hard to dig in, they traditionally take their deceased to charnel grounds and place them on TOP of the ground. Often, they also take the time to cut the body parts up so they can decompose faster. The bodies are then scavenged by wildlife such as vultures, and left to decompose and go back to the earth in that fashion. 

 

So if you look up "Sky Burial" you are going to see pictures of people hacking bodies into pieces and it's really graphic. 

 

It's also common practice of Tibetan monks to go to these charnel grounds to sit and meditate on death so they can get over their fears over this part of life. Quite fascinating stuff. 

 

 

Ooh, sorry, I didn't think about image searches (I read about it in text the first time I heard about it, and that was in places where they put the whole body somewhere out of the way). I first learned about it when reading about Zoroastrianism. They had some sort of buidling they'd leave the bodies in for a while, and come and get the bones later. Then I found out some Native American tribes did it too, but up in a treehouse (well, a little wooden platform up in a tree).

 

 

 

Zoroastrians (known in India as Parsis) regard sky burials, in which the bodies are exposed to natural elements including vultures in open-topped "Towers of Silence," as an ecologically friendly alternative to cremation, consistent with their religion's reverence for the earth. A Zoroastrian priest clad in a long, cotton robe explains: "Death is considered to be the work of Angra Mainyu, the embodiment of all that is evil, whereas the earth and all that is beautiful is considered to be the pure work of God. We must not pollute the earth with our remains."

From: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1864931,00.html#ixzz2U4vzopjR

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Then I found out some Native American tribes did it too, but up in a treehouse (well, a little wooden platform up in a tree).

 

I'm not sure if it was North American natives or other Aboriginal peoples, but this is basically what I thought of re sky burial. I thought the idea was to get as close to heaven as they could--their idea of the Happy Hunting Grounds or whatever.

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I personally think it's gross to discuss the disintegration of the body so I wouldn't think it should be discussed with young children. Maybe that has to do with my having seen and smelled dead animal bodies left to decompose with flies and maggots. Then again, possibly that explanation is better than just burying the body like garbage, I dunno. There's so many ways of looking at it and everyone--including children--reacts differently. I was taught to think the person is permanently at rest. I like the idea and I think it's true. The struggles and difficulties of life on this planet are definitely over.

I agree - I didn't mean to imply that I'm going to teach my children about death by talking about decaying human bodies!  Wendytwitch.gif

 

But my 5-year-old has asked questions about why dinosaur bones are all that's left of the dinosaurs, so the book about the log's life was helpful in answering that question.  It's only natural that kids are going to have questions about death.  What I find most difficult is not being honest with them, but finding words to explain things that they can understand.  Discussing death in the plant and animal world seem to be good first steps before tackling discussions of what happens to people when they die.

 

 

I actually like the idea of my body decomposing better than the idea of being filled with fermaldahyde and preserved in a giant sealed box. I'd like my body to stay around long enough for people to say their goodbyes, but after that.... I don't want to waste the space and resources that such preservation entails. I'd love to be burried in a wooden box and gradudually (and out of sight of my loved ones who'd be freaked out by it) be recycled back into nature. It is comforting to me to think that even once I'm dead, my body will still have something left to contribute to the cycle of life, and that the pieces of me will in that sense live again. I guess to me it's a sort of reincarnation. I'd even be fine with a sky burrial, but that wouldn't go over well in our culture and may be a little too tramatic for the living.

 

 

I was thinking of other people's bodies. I won't know or care what happens to mine. Except I think that on principle I don't want to be buried in the cemetery of my childhood church. And it would seem offensive in the extreme to let the undertaker do things to my body (e.g. pump it full of preserving chemicals) that would endanger the environment around it. I really need to get some stuff in writing re this. But that's not what this thread is about. Sorry for derailing.

 

I really did like that story about the Life of a Log. I haven't read it but I liked the description given above. It seems appropriate.

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One day the mother found her little boy attempting to hang himself with the cord of a his dressing gown.  Asked what he was doing, the boy said that he wanted to go and be with his Daddy.  

 

This is what I don't get. How does a 4 year old come up with something like this?  This is learned behaviour, not something you come up with on your own. People say violence on TV does not influence people, but where else would this child get the idea from?

 

Anyway, I have a toddler that's almost 3 years and I have not yet told her what "dead" means. I've been trying to avoid the subject and so far there hasn't been a need to discuss it. Though perhaps after reading this thread I should start introducing it (through dead insects she sees on the ground etc). You just feel bad exposing stuff like this to them when they're so young.

Certainly I would not want all that heaven talk. As others have mentioned, all that does is cause more questions which means you have to tell more lies. And they trust you. They expect that you have all knowledge, and that you are telling the absolutely truth. How could I in good conscience fill her mind up with BS that will affect her for years to come? I already know first-hand the effects of childhood indoctrination.

With my parents and relatives still being christians it means my daughter is going to be influenced by their views on heaven at some point. I just hope she'll be old enough so that I can counter it without causing too much confusion.

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