Question from a reader:
How do you deal with a very young child getting upset/anxious/afraid about death when you feel guilty that you can't put the heaven spin on it all?
Oh yes, this is one of those places where atheist parents become aware of the huge gap between raising children in a religion and raising them in the light of free thought. In death there are no easy answers, no treacle destinations, no light at the end of the tunnel. Suddenly it becomes obvious that it is different raising a child outside of religions. What is a freethinking parent to do?
Atheist, freethinking parents want to know how to offer comfort and wisdom to our child without bringing anything pretend or false into the conversation. If you are in the middle of a loss and grief situation, my sincere sympathy. It is extra difficult figuring this out during times of intense loss and suffering. I do hope you are considering this issue of dealing with major personal loss before any personal need arises.
Please notice that the question specifically mentions the guilt that this parent is feeling for preventing their child from getting to look to heaven for comfort and joy. Dear Readers and Questioners, see how this adult is struggling with their own guilt as they move away from the religion of their upbringing. That guilt is so strong in such good people. How I would love to magically remove the guilt that has taken hold in the minds of perfectly reasonable and caring humans. Each of these parents is struggling with these internal voices while deliberately working to create a healthier world view for their own children.
What if I told you to let go of the guilt; would that help? My experience is that it takes quite a while for people who have been raised in certain religious traditions to let go of that particular form of bondage. I strongly recommend looking at that guilt and inviting it to hit the road. In the meantime, let's look at loss.
Every loss is different. Every child is different. Yet there are some universal points to being a human being experiencing a major loss that may make our approach a bit less frightening, a bit less overwhelming and lonely. Let's give some thought to how children at different ages tend to approach loss in the world.
Brief Discussion of Loss By Age
If your child is younger than seven or so,he is still in a very egocentric place where he feels as though things that happen in the world happen to him personally or because of him. This child tends to believe that life is forever, that death can't possibly touch them. These are our little superheroes! Death is so very misunderstood by these children; media, games, and cultural taboo don't help much in this regard.
As the parent to these children, we don't want to instill fear of death, yet these little hearts will still be afraid. It is at this point that parents tend to grasp for the simplified straw of a Sky Daddy and a Sky Garden. If you have read myth stories with your child before this difficult loss you might talk about how different religions and mythologies in human history have created many stories, some comforting and some scary, to explain death. But we know that when a beloved human dies, just as when a pet dies or our tulips die, that that is the end of their life. The elements from their body go back into the earth and begin again as nutrients for future generations of living things. We also know that the love that we shared with these people during their lives made them happy! We know that the time we spent with our loved ones lives on in our minds and memories in such a way that they can bring comfort to us long after they are gone.
The older child, ages six through twelve, begins to understand that death is irreversible while still being rather remote and far off. These are the years when children spend time working on a death philosophy in their own head. The circle of life idea is very helpful during these years. These are also the years when ghosts, demons, and other supernatural fears can rear their frightening heads in the minds of our little burgeoning freethinkers.
Teens think about death quite frequently. The immensity of death tends to overwhelm all humans, but teens can have a real struggle with it. This is the time of life when a person experiences so much inner turmoil and confusion and tends to keep it all locked up inside. Existential angst is truly painful. Sometimes, these overwhelming feelings can come out in risk-taking behavior in teens or even in some younger kids. Some teens tend to take a what the fuck attitude at the finality of death, feel like life is pointless. The best thing a parent can do is be there, be honest, frequently remind their child that they are not truly alone, let them know that you are concerned for them.
Developmental stages in children have been well-researched. But your child may still be experiencing things that are not considered typical because of their feelings about death. Always, and in all ways, being there, talking openly about grief, sharing your own, acknowledging that the loss is strongly effecting you, these types of things that put grief in the spotlight, these activities model the normalcy of grief. And if you need help, please get it. There is no shame in seeking a bereavement therapist. Find good books and websites to help you to understand grief and its phases. Educate yourself, as in all things.
Honor the Lost Person or Object
When a beloved person or pet dies or when you experience a major loss, feel it! Experience the loss together. No need to rush it along, deny its depth, or sweep it behind the door. Instead you may find meaning in do something that truly honors the lost beloved person or object.
Human beings crave ritual. We find comfort in the wake and in the funeral, however difficult they are to face. So why not create your own way to honor your beloved person? When my dad died the kids and I went to places that were special to him. We felt our loss. We talked about how these places would always remind us of him. And we made donations to two different organizations that meant something to Dad. In one case, we asked friends to make donations in his name. In these ways, we felt as though his influence on this earth continued after his life.
Your loss will be unique and worthy of spending time with. Sometimes this takes a very long time. That is OK, there is no exact time period for grief. Mostly, love and support one another in the way that makes the most sense.
There are no rules. There are no normals. There is only our loss and our family. Do what makes sense and remember that we are modeling for our children at all times, even during these difficult times.
Photo Credits: Dvidshub