Let’s Talk About Death. Or Not.
Summary: Kids can handle the truth. They can handle death. It’s adults than need happy stories to ease their discomfort.
When it comes to the big “D” parents just fall apart. They use euphemisms and abstractions when explaining it to their children. To complicate matters, most parents believe in some kind of life after death. Most think they will go to Heaven. I’m not going to argue about whether this is true or not. Will your child visit grandma in heaven after they die? Perhaps, but you don’t know that and it’s not useful information. What you do know for sure is that grandma is dead because she got too old to live anymore. You can’t visit her and she’s not coming back. Death is forever. If you are dead you cannot enjoy any of things this world has to offer. This is good, helpful information that a child can process and act upon. Spinning happy tales to ease a child’s mind does nothing to help them grasp this simple concept. Children need to know that if they do something profoundly reckless and stupid it could kill them and if they are dead they will never see mommy and daddy again, they won’t eat ice cream, and won’t be able to see, feel or think anything. They will be gone forever. This is all any one of us know for certain. The rest is speculation.
This is how my daughter’s been raised. She has a simple and truthful idea about what happens when something dies. She doesn’t think it’s in a better place or that her dead pet fish is watching over her from the heavens. It’s dead. It’s not coming back. End of story. She also knows that should she die, it’s all over for her as well. She’s not coming back to visit us and she will never do fun things on earth again.
This is not mean. Only adults think this is mean. A child will readily accept the facts and just move on.
What if you told your child that if they didn’t brush their teeth that their teeth will rot and fall out, BUT, they will get them all back when they go to heaven and they will be able to eat ice cream all day and never have to brush their teeth again. Yippee! What wonderful and fantastic story to easy their mind about the consequences of ignoring proper oral hygiene.
I don’t think there is a single parent walking this earth who would think this is good advice. No one would say that because brushing your teeth is important and a child needs to understand the consequences of poor oral hygiene. Yet most people believe this to be more or less true. They will get all their teeth back, eat ice cream all day and never have to brush their teeth ever again. So why don’t they downplay the risks of bad brushing by telling their child that it ultimately doesn’t matter because they get them all back when they go to heaven?
“Well, because children need to brush their teeth. It’s important!”
Some people believe that god will provide. Not in a general way, but in a very specific, tangible and measurable way. When I was in seventh grade I would go to this Wednesday evening Christian event for teenage boys. I went because my best friend, who was a Christian, went and I just wanted to hang out. We did an activity, listened to some god stuff and then did what we all really came to do, which was play basketball. One day the counselor is telling us a story about how his bank account was dangerously low. He wouldn’t be able to pay his bills. He prayed and prayed for guidance and support. At the end of the month when he balanced his checkbook he discovered that there was an extra $200 in his account. His conclusion? God put extra money in his account because he had faith. My conclusion? You did your math wrong, you always had $200 more than you thought, but you just now noticed it. I couldn’t believe a full-grown adult was behaving this way.
Now, for argument’s sake, let’s say his version of events was true. God somehow manipulated the data at the bank in a way that would make it seem as if an extra $200 did appear in his account. He changed all the data to account for this money somehow, including a paper trail of where it came from. Maybe he materialized a cashed check from a seemingly real, yet complete imaginary and untraceable account. Who knows, but god put the money there.
Now who would you want giving your child financial advice? Me, a twelve-year-old boy, who stresses good accounting and living within your means, or the Christian counselor, a full-grown adult, who teaches prayer as a means for balancing your checkbook. Every parent would pick me. Even the born again ones.
Why? Because being able to handle finances properly is important.
You see this every day, across the entire world. No matter what their faith, when the consequences are serious, people demand, as well as give, the hard tangible truth.
Most people believe in some sort of spiritual being that not only influences the world but will directly shape events for the people who have faith in his power. This is why athletes and armies pray for victory, Grammy winners thank god, and people pray for guidance and relief.
Yet, who do they go to when they are sick? A priest? A cleric? Nope they head right to the hospital and seek out someone who can implement specific treatments with tangible, measurable results- someone who deals in facts and reason and has the training and tools to help them. Sure, they may also pray on the side, but only after they’ve done all the other stuff they know should do.
Who fixes your car? A Shaman? How about your taxes? Do you go to H&R Block or a prayer circle to make sure they are filed correctly?
You can see where I’m going with this. When it’s time to actually accomplish something specific, people keep their faith in check and focus on what options are really available to them. You don’t turn to the Bible to figure out if your child is dyslexic or has delayed language abilities. You got to a speech therapist. You don’t look to god for guidance to buy a new home. You look at your finances, check the interest rates and with the help of your mortgage broker you massage the numbers. If it’s financially feasible, you do it. If not, you don’t. There is no ambiguity to the process.
People of the most devote faith do this every day when they need to deal with real life. They save the god stuff for church or when it’s time to regroup and reflect. And they do just fine. They adjust and get on with it. They don’t mourn the loss of a fanciful tale that makes everything seem mystical. They don’t pout that buying a home is not cloaked in magic and mystery or that getting a cast for their broken arm is just not spiritual enough.
Children are the ultimate dealers. They handle things way better than adults. And unlike adults they have a very easy time accepting the truth. So Grandma’s dead. Yes, it’s sad. A child adjusts and moves on. It’s the adults that fall to pieces and have to come up with alternate realities to easy their pain. She’s in a better place. Everything happens for a reason. She’s watching us from heaven right now. I can feel her spirit. She lived a full life and it was just her time.
Kids don’t need this. So don’t justify your avoidance of the truth and cloak death in euphemisms for the sake of you children. The reality is you do it for your own benefit, not your kids.
This is not about abandoning your faith. This is not anti-god. This is about the right tool for the job. Religion is fine for discussing metaphorical and existential concepts. It can work fine for exploring issues of morality. It can provide guidance and strength in the darkest of times. The world’s most important civil rights movement was fueled by faith and faith has continued to grow and spread while great empires continue to crumble. But faith is not so good when dealing with situations where you need immediate concrete information that you can act upon.
We all demand the truth every day. Whether it’s diagnosing your chest pain in the emergency room or just wanting to know what aisle the cheddar cheese is on, you want a simple, truthful answer.
So I ask you, why should death be any different?
File Under: Teaching Kids About Death – How to Explain Death and Dying To Children – Explaining Death from a Human Secularist View Point – Death, Faith and Religion