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!”

Exactly.

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


13 Responses to “Let’s Talk About Death. Or Not.”

  • Jeff D'Antonio Says:

    While I agree with you about teaching kids how to face reality, there’s nothing wrong with teaching them a little about faith as well. It’s a balance.

    My adopted daughter saw both of her parents die (separately) in very horrible ways. She still visits their graves regularly, she talks to them, and she feels her mother’s presence there. I don’t know for certain if there is an afterlife, but she believes there is – and it helps her to cope with her tragic reality. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. She has seen horrors unlike you or I could ever imagine, and anything that helps her to heal those wounds is a good thing, in my opinion – even if it is just a fantasy.
    .-= Jeff D’Antonio´s lastest blog ..The most beautiful Christmas gift ever =-.

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  • Straight Dope Dad Says:

    That’s a definitely valid point. I also think there is a difference between sugar coating, or flat out lying (like saying their pet ran away rather than it died in it’s sleep) and a child developing or embracing their own methods of coping. So if visiting the grave helps her heal then that’s great. That’s what faith is about really. Providing strength against impossible odds. And I mean that in the most general sense. Thinking things will work out when the prognosis is bad and you have no real plan of action is a form of faith. As a unapologetic optimist I have that in spades. A good friend once said, after something in my life went seriously wrong, that it doesn’t matter what happens because I’ll just twist it all around and declare victory anyway. It was a blunt way of telling it, but it was fundamentally accurate of how I operate. I’m relentless in my pursuit of a positive outcome.

    So I understand coping methods well and understand that sometimes you’ve just got to move forward as if it’s all going to be fine.

    But this is always mixed with hard reality. Which is the balance you refer to. I hope for the best, but I know I have no logical reason to justify that hope. It’s just fabricated out of nothing. There is no magical being who’s going to even the score for me.

    Humans seem to have a difficult time putting aside ego and just dealing with hard reality but have an endless reservoir of talents for justifications and self delusion. This is mainly what I was referring to in the essay. There is no shortage of fantasy and truth avoidance. There’s also a difference between descriptive measures (some people feel better by visiting a grave, you could give that a try) and prescriptive measures (you need to visit her grave and talk to her because she’s waiting in heaven and misses you).

    So in my essay I’m fighting for the opposite of how parents actually explain death which is about as well as how they explain where babies come from (I’ll go on the record that babies definitely don’t grown in a woman’s tummy, nor is the baby the result of marriage and prayer.)

    BTW, I really enjoyed how naked (figuratively) you are on your blog. Nice writing.

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  • Mike Deutsch Says:

    New reader here, with a lot in common, it seems… Great thoughts, and great writing!

    My young kids, now 7 and 4, are growing up without their grandma (my mom), who died unexpectedly just weeks before my oldest was born. My mom really cherished becoming a grandma, which made her loss and our (inevitably uphill) first-born experience even more difficult for everyone.

    Seven years later, my kids have now also been through the death of my grandfather, whom they knew well. So for us, death is a part of our kids’ history, and that means our kids bring it up pretty frequently in conversation.

    My wife and I are trying to give our kids a “natural” understanding of how the world works, so we`re trying to be straightforward about death. We’ve had some lump-in-the-throat, oh-crap-how-do-we-put-this moments when asked about it, but over time we’ve settled on some descriptions we like to use.

    Dying is what happens “when a person’s body gets very, VERY old, or very, VERY sick” (to help them understand they shouldn’t expect it to happen soon to themselves or us). A person dies when “their body just isn’t able to work anymore, so it stops.” About funerals and burials, we explain: “we save the person’s body, and keep it in a cemetery where we can visit”.

    We’ve never said anything about heaven or the afterlife or a “better place,” and quite frankly, I’m with you on that. It’s an adult emotional crutch, one we can live a very happy, human life without.

    … So, great post. I’m glad to have found your blog & I’m looking forward to catching up on the archives. Cheers,
    .-= Mike Deutsch´s lastest blog ..mdeutschmtl- I just read Freemium isnt just for Startups with Nothing to Lose by @lincolnmurphy &amp @16v Get your copy here- http-jmp-9D0QNg saas =-.

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    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Hello Mike, and thanks for your comment. That’s a perfect way to explain death. It’s also how we explained it to our daughter when she was younger. Her preschool (where my partner taught at before she had our daughter) explained it the same way as well.

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  • Sia Says:

    Hi there,

    I came across your post and had the urge to respond. Although I disagree with you about the afterlife, that’s not really why I wanted to respond.

    Even if you truly believe that there is no life after death and that there is no heaven, what is the harm in sharing with your children that some people do believe there is a heaven? I believe that every individual deserves to make that decision for themselves. Hearing both sides of the story. After all, it isn’t only a grandparents death that they are going to have to deal with in their lifetime. There will be other deaths to deal with, including their own. I think it’s an incredibly less terrifying experience to endure when facing your own death, if you are allowed to face it with even the slightest bit of hope, that there IS a heaven. After all, if you have hope, and if you are wrong, you’ll never know it, right? You’ll just be dead. But you will have had a peaceful journey to your death instead of one without hope. Do you not agree with that?

    Coming from a young someone who has battled cancer twice, including stage 4 cancer, having no hope at all is highly overrated and a bit cruel.

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    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    Your response brings up a lot of points so I’ll tackle them one by one.

    We have an ideological free household. We discuss things openly and honestly and then reach conclusions. If the we receive new information, we then modify our conclusions. We discuss everything including religion. But we don’t sit her down and give her “the talk” about anything. We just discuss things as they come up and as they are encountered in our day to day lives.

    So we have told our daughter about heaven, prayer, the afterlife, the works and she, at age seven, has come to the same conclusion – it doesn’t make any sense and it can’t be true.

    Religion simple doesn’t hold up upon scrutiny. That’s why it’s called faith. Otherwise it would be called a theory or a fact. You must train children to grow up to believe in heaven as there is no reason to believe it otherwise. The chances of them coming up with that on their own are very slim. It requires too great of a fanciful leap.

    So I’m already doing my part. But I also wonder if you think religious parents should teach their children that some people don’t believe in god, or heaven, and that these non-believers have very sound and reasonable facts to back up their non-belief. Should they teach their children that non-believers are just as moral as religious people and that humans are innately moral creatures and this moral structure in our brain predates Christianity and all religions. Should religious children be taught that all religions lack even the most rudimentary facts to substantiate their claims and that in reality faith is just that, faith.

    I bet good money that almost all people would say no.

    In American, raising a child without god, any god, is seen as cruel and heartless. It doesn’t matter what faith you pick, but you are supposed to pick one, stick to it, and make sure your kid believes in it.

    So I’m already giving my daughter a well rounded education on not only world religions, but on the major sociological, psychological, political, and economic theories. Of course it’s age appropriate and I naturally work it into conversation when she encounters these subjects naturally, but I’ve never met a ideological driven parent return the favor.

    And by ideology I mean all ideology, including atheism. Indoctrinating a child into non-belief is no better.

    It’s also not my fault that religion makes you sound like a crazy person when you try to explain it as one would explain how to fix a faucet or change your car’s oil. I give it to my daughter straight but it’s really difficult to explain why people pray, the basic theories on the afterlife, and the concept of an almighty god that created everything, sees everything and influences world events and not have her just chuckle. To a young child that’s already been indoctrinated since birth to accept these things without question it makes sense, but to a child raised without ideology they think it’s the most crazy and funny thing they’ve ever heard. It’s like explaining why some people think that other races are inferior. To a racist child it makes sense, to a child free of racism it sounds like crazy talk. I’m not comparing racism to religion, I’m just using an extreme analogy of how ideology influences perception.

    I grew up ideologically free. My parents gave no indication of what I should believe. They stressed reason, logic and above all being a decent conscientious person.

    So when I encountered racism and religious bigotry early on it was a real surprise to find that people thought that way. But, because of my background, also easy to identify as an idea without any merit.

    I remember when I was around fourth grade and one of my friends was Jewish. However, I didn’t know that, or either cared so little I forgot, because I wasn’t raised to place a value on these things one way or another. To me he was just a nice kid – smart and friendly – and he had some killer anatomical sculptures because his dad was a dentist.

    However, another classmate once pointed out that my friend was Jewish, but he said it in a way that being Jewish really meant something more. He had a concern to his voice with undertones that implied something sinister. I said “so what?” and then I asked I asked how did he know. He said you can tell by his last name and they way he looks.

    I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about. The idea of Jewish last names or a identifying a Jew by sight was completely foreign to me. Not only from a technical standpoint but from an ideological point as well. But to my classmate it mattered because he grew up in an ideological driven household that projected all kinds of qualities and meanings on being Jewish – and they weren’t good ones.

    So that’s a very long response to a simple question. Yes, she’s being raised with a non-ideological knowledge of religion and is free to make he own conclusions. But it’s not my fault that religion makes such a poor case for itself.

    Now as for having hope in the afterlife, I fail to understand how believing in the afterlife gives one hope or makes death less terrifying. Death ends life. That is what we know for sure. Would you feel better spending the rest of your life in tiny prison cell if you believed in the afterlife? I doubt it. How about being tortured every day? What matters is now, and death ends the now. I also think that being afraid of death is a good thing. It is something you should try to avoid.

    Now. I’m well aware that my way of thinking is in the tiny majority and always will be. It requires you to confront your own mortality in a way that is just too bleak for most. But it is also liberating and keeps you focused on just how amazing and precious life is. I know most feel they need stories of magic to make life magical, but I think it’s pretty wondrous as it is and religion, by providing pat, finite answers to everything, is an obstacle to deeper understanding. The more I learn about the physics, the chemistry and the biology behind life the more amazing it becomes. And this science contradicts all religious doctrine. Not the general idea of god itself, which is unknowable either way, but most definitely the specific stories that have been written about god. But I’d say the story of mitochondria is far more “spiritual” than a story about a supreme being making everything from nothing in six days because it teaches us some very profound things about how we are even capable of living in the first place.

    So in collusion yes, children should be educated about everything, including the world’s major religions as they will be encountering believers and their influences their entire life. For good or bad, religion has informed and shaped every part of our society, and to let your child be ignorant of that would be negligent.

    What value she places on that information, and how she interprets it, is up to her.

    Holy cow. The comments are turning out to be longer than the essay!

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    Karen Reply:

    I agree with you about a lot of the things you’ve said. You are a very logical person, which I admire and attempt to be. However, there was one thing that I felt I should comment on. You said…

    “Now as for having hope in the afterlife, I fail to understand how believing in the afterlife gives one hope or makes death less terrifying.”

    Regardless of whether or not the afterlife is real, it DOES make some people feel better about the current life. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense to you as to why, but it does help people.

    I grew up being taught atheism mostly, and I’ve always struggled with the notion of God. It makes absolutely no sense, but on the other hand, I don’t want to be so arrogant as to dismiss it entirely if billions of people disagree. That’s just too many people. If deep thinkers and people smarter than I believe in God, then who am I to say he definitely doesn’t exist?

    I don’t know if I’ll ever believe in God, but part of me WANTS to. I see people who believe in God who have a peace and relationship with him that I find myself envious of. If I had been brainwashed as a child to believe in God, then I might accept him and have hope about death and be somewhat happier. It doesn’t really matter if he’s really real or not. It only matters if you believe he’s real and that brings you happiness. Sometimes I feel like the only way I would ever get to that point is if I stop questioning it or thinking about it. I would have to tell myself that faith is beyond our comprehension and beyond our perception of logic.

    Logical or not, real or not, there are benefits to believing in God.

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    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    I have no problem boldly stating that ALL of the world’s religions are wrong. Now that’s different than denying the possibility of some kind of existence beyond the corporeal. However all religions put forth very specific and testable theories on how theirs works. Put to the test, they are clearly all impossible. Also, if just one of them happened to be right, the rest of course would be wrong by definition. So no matter what, most people are going to be wrong on this, and quite possibly all of them. I also have no problem disagreeing with billions of people. A casual look at the past and even our current situation easily proves that the majority are wrong about very important issues most of the time. Germ theory easily comes to mind. You can also add homosexuality as a disease or a form of demonic possession, women being mentally inferior to men, slavery, dumping our waste into our oceans and rivers as safe way to dispose of our crap, the age of the planet being in the low thousands, the size of the universe ending just beyond our planet, human reproduction as divine intervention or the womb merely being the receptacle for the man’s seed and the fetus grows up spontaneously with any contribution from the woman…pretty much everything that any sane person now understands as truth was at one time the dominant belief. One of the wackiest was that most Europeans at one time though fossils were baby animals that were waiting to grow instead of the remains of dead ones. The reason was the most people believed that animals spontaneously grew out the soil. So taken as whole, not aligning with the majority often just makes good sense (except when they are right of course as being contrary for the sake of being contrary is foolish)

  • Sia Says:

    I had a pretty open upbringing myself. I was born Jewish but had an exposure to many different religions and cultures. I was taught to believe that we are all created equal. Through my own explorations, I am now a Christian. Or a Jew for Jesus. Whatever you want to call it. I don’t like labels so I prefer to say that I am a spiritual person, period. If my family has a problem with it, they don’t express it. They say that I should choose that path that is best for me. I am grateful for that.

    I believe that there are many things that can’t be explained or proven to be fact by science. Just like faith, no scientist can prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that love exists. Yet I would say that the majority of the world believes that love exists. I think that if we had to to try explain what love was to someone who had no idea what we were talking about, love could sound pretty silly and ridiculous too.

    I have recently gotten involved with children who are battling cancer. The week before Christmas, a young girl who had undergone a transplant began to get very critical. I was praying for her, that she would have a full recovery. She passed away the night before Christmas Eve. I have to ask you this question as a father, if it was your child who was closing in on death, what would you be telling her in those moments?
    .-= Sia´s lastest blog ..Whos Most Likely To Be Blessed in 2011 =-.

    [Reply]

    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    I’d tell her that we’re doing everything to help her get better, that having her as a daughter has been the most amazing experience in my life, and I’m staying right here until she does. And then I would. That’s it. I don’t why I should tart it up with fantasy. My love for her is real and more than enough.

    And actually love can be proven. Much like we prove the existence of a black hole by how it effects light and matter around it (the hole itself is invisible in the traditional sense), love is identified the same way. Plus the recent advances in brain chemistry, brain mapping, and biochemistry have given us a clearer picture on how love works and it’s evolutionary purpose. I know we want to think of love as magical and transcendent but the truth it’s it basically chemicals and hormones. How we experience these biochemical reactions is pretty extreme, but strip away the poetics and that’s what it is. I love my daughter because my biochemistry creates those feelings and those feelings in turn create those conditions. It’s a feedback loop.

    If the part of my brain that’s responsible for love was damaged, I could lose all love for my daughter. That’s very sad, but very true. The same it true for my sense of smell, my vision, my sense of humor, and the ability to recognize color. It can be taken away at any moment.

    We also have a faith mechanism is our brain that’s responsible for generating spiritual feelings. In some people it is really strong. In others it’s very week. In you, I’d say it’s strong.

    However, the existence of the brain’s ability to feel spiritual (and that’s all it is, everything is in the brain) is much different than proving that heaven, angels, ghosts, gold castles in the sky, and so on, are real. These things can be pretty easily dismissed.

    A person who has a phobia experiences extreme anxiety. But that doesn’t mean the object of their phobia is actually dangerous or even real. Feelings aren’t facts, thought he effects of these feeling are very real and easy to measure. That’s the power of the mind. If you think you’re sick and going to throw up, you can make yourself feel sick and throw up, even if you are perfectly healthy. That’s why people don’t want to hear a story about having diarrhea when they are eating. It makes most people a bit nauseous. However, you can’t wish away cancer or alter reality, but you can have experiences that are contrary to the facts.

    I can accept that religion is unsubstantiated faith, so I don’t know why the faithful can’t. That’s the whole point and the main attraction isn’t it? To have something special and personal that brings comfort by explaining the universe in simple terms that require no proof because it’s a feeling.

    So I’m not going to debate how real your faith is because that’s not possible because it’s faith. The point of my essay is that adults have a very difficult time accepting death and explaining it to children, which you’ve demonstrated. For you, death is not an option. You will live forever and it’s really important to believe that. I get it. It does sound awesome.

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  • Sia Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to respond. I ask these questions not to prove you wrong on a blog or in life, but because I’m genuinely curious what makes people believe the way that they do. I respect everyones beliefs unless it involves racism or hatred. Thanks again.

    May peace be your journey and may love light your path.

    Sia
    .-= Sia´s lastest blog ..Whos Most Likely To Be Blessed in 2011 =-.

    [Reply]

    Straight Dope Dad Reply:

    A friend of mine introduced me to an expression that goes “I have no tolerance for intolerance”. Which I think is a clever way to explain the dichotomy of respect (eg: I respect everyone’s beliefs unless it involves racism or hatred.)

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  • Martin Says:

    Hi,

    I am a Christian, not by upbringing, but by choice later in life. I am a general practitioner (family doctor – is that how you say it? I’m German). You are, of course right in your judgment of what kids can handle and how messed up many adults relationship with death is. After reading all these comments, here are my two cents:

    I am not afraid of Death. I am afraid of dying. I think that is true for most people of any faith, and it makes a big difference. Dying can be long, sad and painful. Death probably isn’t.
    I realize that I am a Christian, because it is the religion of the society I grew up in. But I don’t take the bible literally, but in context. I think Creationism is a pretty good way of explaining evolution to humans a few thousand years ago, for example. I think the gist of the New Testament is “Don’t be a dick, help others where you can”.

    Why do I believe there is a greater power behind these concepts? Because it is easier for me to believe, it seems more plausible to me than that the universe in all it’s glory accidentally produced us in our complexity. The more I learn about people and medicine, the more I doubt it’t coincidental even in a Darwinian “it made sense to develop that way”-sense.

    So I tell my kids that yes, Death of this life is final. And there is no coming back if you don’t have some serious pull with God himself (like being his son or something) or are dead for a very short time and get help very quickly. What comes after? I think more, but I don’t know what. And I will enjoy this life while I can and then find out with great curiosity. I think that is being honest, I certainly don’t sugarcoat it, but from a scientific point of view, not believing in an afterlife is just as much a faith as believing, because neither side can prove anythiing, can they?

    I think I’m going to like your blog. Sorry I couldn’t proof read my post.

    [Reply]

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