To lie to my six year old about the afterlife?(51 Posts)
Tonight DS was in a bit of a strange mood and wouldn't eat his dinner. We thought he was just in a strop as he'd been sent to his room earlier for being rude but then he suddenly burst into tears and came for a hug and said that when he is alone he can't stop thinking about and worrying about death. He was really hysterical and couldn't stop crying and shaking (and farting!) - saying that not knowing what happens afterwards and the fact you can't come back is bothering him the most. DH did reassure him that everybody is afraid of death and that's good, because it's what keeps us alive, but then put his foot in it by saying that he believes there is nothing after death (and that's why he thinks life is so important to spend well.)
I had to go to work (he has the best timing!) but I gave him a long cuddle, reassured him nobody we know is dying any time soon and then left him with DH and he seemed okay when I left, and briefly when I got back he was still awake but it was after bedtime so he gave me a quick kiss and then went back to bed and he was cheerful enough then. But he hadn't eaten any of his dinner.
I can't stop thinking about it now. We are atheists and our policy has always been to explain all kinds of religious and spiritual beliefs as "Some people believe that..." or "Some people think that..." but we have always stated that nobody really knows this stuff. Now I'm thinking maybe we've got this glaringly wrong? Maybe at six you need a nice fluffy story about an endlessly fun place with everyone who ever loved you and a kind person who will hold your hand and look after you when you're there? Now I think back, I have always had a concept of an afterlife and that must have come from something I was told as a child. And while as an adult I find the idea of a god anything but comforting, children find the idea of being alone so frightening and he has already worked out that DH and I will die before he does so maybe that is what he is imagining?
I'm really upset to think that he has been so distressed about it. What do you think? I haven't had a chance to talk to DH yet so will obviously see what he thinks too but I am leaning towards let's just agree on a story and tell him the story for now, and he'll still be able to work out his own beliefs when he's older. It's just after I was marvelling recently at the genius of whoever invented the tooth fairy, too, thinking oh, that could be really scary for children and instead somebody made it into something exciting! Am totally kicking myself now. DH is more matter of fact than I am, and DS is more like me, ie, a total overthinker!
I had this with DS aged 5. We discussed what various religions believe happens after death. I explained that people find comfort in these ideas because no one really knows. I asked him what he thought would happen. He said he'd like to be reincarnated and be a Minion or a Giraffe. He is happy with this.
I'm sure DS would love the idea of being reincarnated as a minion too!
My son isn't old enough for this yet, so I have no real experience to offer. But, personally, I've always liked the Pratchettian version of the afterlife - you get what you think you deserve. Or the Buffy version of a heavenly dimension - you are warm, loved and know everyone you care about is OK. I don't think it absolutely has to involve gods or religion if you do want to go with the story option.
We are atheist and DS age 5 has been obsessed with death for months!
We've told him that our bodies are made up of millions of tiny pieces. When we die our bodies don't work anymore and those millions of pieces become part of other things in the world, like grass and trees, or float up and become part of the stars. We tell him that we remember the people we've lost (DS lost my wonderful MIL) and find happy things to think about so they are never truly gone for the people who loved them.
We impress on him the importance of the circle of life, easy in autumn with the leaves falling and then new in the spring. One life ends and another begins and it's how we live our lives that create the special memories that are so important for our families.
He still asks about death a lot though! Not in a sad way anymore, more of a...when I die mum I think I want to become a really tall tree....!
I don't believe in an afterlife and I would never tell DD that one exists. (I would of course explain that some people believe etc...).
I think in your circs I would focus on why he is scared of death, and then focus on my own beliefs - eg death just means the end of someone's life. We can be sad when someone we love dies but they live on in our memories. When someone dies, their body stops working and they won't come alive again. This is what happens with all animals and is a natural part of life. It's not scary, it's just a fact of life (literally). We can remember people who have died and be grateful that they lived / that we knew them.
At six, I think you might manage to get into a bit of philisohpy about how we can't know for definite what happens after death, but probably nothing happens - that is just the end of your body and mind working.
I think talking about it in a matter of fact way, showing that you aren't scared, answering his questions, would be much much more reassuring to your DS than making up a story you don't believe in.
Oh yes, I really like the "we are all stardust" idea, and that the millions of pieces of our body go back into the world to start again as new life.
I used to have panic attacks about death. Proper ones. Really vicious one on a bus once. Up until my late 20s.
Was the thought of dying and the 'nothingness'. Me no longer existing.
Still stresses me out now but I have moved on from it.
Dad died when DD1 was just under 3 and we had a lot of discussions about death for a long time. Dad was an atheist but as a farmer he believed in the cycle of life so we have had the classic 'have the worms eaten Grandad yet?' conversation (at the graveside!).
FWIW I think getting upset about this is a natural part of growing up, one of the DDs got very upset about the fact that she didn't exist at some point in the past 'but where was I?'. Even DH (lapsed Catholic) could make up a story to explain that. I wouldn't make up a story to make your DS happy if it's not something you believe in, I've just weathered the storms with the DC about religion, school has caused most of them TBH.
I don't think I can be impassionate and just calmly say "It's not scary, it's just a fact of life" though when he's so upset by it. Although perhaps he was a bit upset about being told off and it all rolled into one.
I do like the bits about circle of life. And the idea of getting a book with what all of the main world religions believe. My mum has new age spiritual beliefs too so that is another angle.
When my son asked what it 'felt like' I said it was like before being born - people aren't scared, or sad or worried about being born or starting life, so there was no need to feel like that about lives ending. We can feel sad when someone else dies as we will miss them, but we don't have to worry about what they are feeling. He seemed happy with it and went off on the whole tangent about being born, but I like the molecular explanation too!
Well the fact is that no matter what you choose to believe no one knows what happens after death. You may think you do but it's just personal belief and speculation so to tell a child there is nothing after death when they are already distressed is pretty shit. If my child was so upset about the thought that you can't come back I would probably explain that three quarters of the world's population do believe in reincarnation, it's a possibility but nobody knows for sure, then try and explain some other belief systems. I think all children obsess about death at some point, mine did at about age 4.
I would (and have) say that it's lovely and whatever 'heaven' is meant to be like.
I'm not particularly religious but I wouldn't want a distraught and terrified dc so I would say whatever I could to reassure them even if it wasn't true
There's a book called What I Believe that explains all of the world religions to children. It was recommended to me and Ill probably get it for dd when she's old enough
Our approach is that of Picalilli. My mum died last year, dd was 7 and ds just turned 4. I read 'No Matter What' by Debi Gliori at her funeral and recommend it to go alongside the 'we are all stardust' approach.
My mother died when DS1 was 2.9 and DS2 was 1.8, so we had this conversation then. I can tell you (as a matter of academic interest) that DS1 remembers her and talks about her, whilst DS2 has no real memory of her at all and just spouts whatever he recalls the story to be at the time.
We are atheists, but we told DS1 that DM had gone to Heaven. We did this because it seemed to avoid all the usual linguistic pitfalls (she's fallen asleep, she's gone away, she's not here anymore) and so didn't run the risk of making him scared to go to bed or freak out if I had a work trip. Also, if he told random people at nursery that 'Nanna's gone to Heaven' then they'd know immediately what had happened and how to respond appropriately.
He seemed to take it on board, although we did have a conversation today where he went 'Nanna's gone to Heaven but we'll see her when she comes back' we then had the 'No, that's not happening' conversation again. I suspect that he made the first statement deliberately to try to catch me out though (he's 4.3). We'll bring up the whole topic of atheism when he's older, I think - I feel he needs a lie to believe in at this age.
It's good that you are discussing the topic with your son and not skirting around it, op. My younger brother died when I was 6 and was just..... never mentioned again. It really screwed me up (as the counsellor has helped me to realise) so discussion of death, while hard to do, is definitely the better way to go with children (well everybody really IMO).
My h2b niece who is 10 will be reading No Matter What for ours. Its a lovely childrens book about a child asking its parent if they will always love them. Initially we thought she could read it alone but she is going to do it as a duet with her mum.
No Matter What
By Debi Gliori
Small was feeling
Grim and dark.
Playing toss and fling and squash,
Yell and scream and bang and crash
Break and snap and bash and batter??
??Good grief?? said Large.
??What is the matter???
??I??m a grim and grumpy
Loves me at all??
??Oh Small?? said Large. ??Grumpy or not,
I??ll always love you no matter what.??
Small said, ??If I was a grizzly bear,
Would you still love me,
Would you care???
??Of course?? said Large,
??bear or not,
I??ll always love you
No matter what.??
Small said ??But if I turned into a bug,
Would you still love me and give me a hug???
??Of course?? said Large,
??Bug or not,
I??ll always love you no matter what??
??No matter what??? said Small and smiled
??what if I was a crocodile???
Large said, ??I??d hug you close and tight,
And tuck you up in bed each night.??
??Does love wear out?? said Small,
??does it break or bend?
Can you fix it, stick it,
Does it mend???
??Oh help?? said Large, ??I??m not that clever,
I just know I??ll love you for ever.??
Small said, ??but what about
when your dead and gone
would you still love me then,
does love go on???
Large held Small snug
as they looked out at the night,
at the moon in the dark,
and the starts shining bright.
??Small, look at the stars
How they shine and glow,
But some of those stars died
A long time ago
Still they shine in the evening skies
Love, like starlight, never dies.??
Sorry, that ended up including preamble from the forum I found the text on!
I do believe in an afterlife but personally even if I didn't I would be inclined to say it is at least a possibility.
I think 'you are dead and that's that' is just too harsh for a six year old.
A few years back when the hamster died I explained that I believe in the circle of life thing and that everything goes back into the ground (animals/people/plants), turns into plant food and helps other things live. This is helped by the massive trees growing in the large grave yard where we feed the squirrels, if it's a particularly big tree DD declares that person must have eaten far too much sometimes food lol.
I have also explained other beliefs and asked her what she thinks happens as you did.
When her great Grandparents died last year she took great glee in telling everyone she met that they were plant food. She seems to understand that we have to take turns and there isn't enough room for everyone at the same time.
However, I thinks it's really important NOT to promise that you aren't going anywhere as it's simply a promise you can't keep. Dd knows that we normally die when were very old but we have to keep ourselves safe and be careful near water and crossing the road.
I think in your case though your son would be far too upset to have that convo at that time and placating him with an idea of an afterlife if he wants to believe it is ok.
We are religious believers so very fortunate to be able to share hope with our dds but they fret over us dying. I counter that by pointing out to them that I used to lie awake crying for fear of their Grannie dying when I was a child and that feels like a lifetime ago to me now and Grannie is still alive and well and now I'm grown up I'm no longer afraid because I know I will be ok when it happens. I point out that things that are scary when you're little are nothing like as scary when you're grown up.
I also have adopted Picalilli's approach, which has the handy advantage of being pretty much true. I don't know that you really need to go into the whole 'some people believe' thing yet and certainly not the 'no-one knows' stance, unless you are really agnostic as opposed to atheist - the only reason to say 'no-one knows' is if you think that religion might be a credible explanation that you have to disprove which, to my mind, is not what atheism is about.
But please don't feel guilty about not providing him with the comfort that you think religion brings - all children go through a phase of feeling sad, scared and worried about death, even children who are taken to church/mosque/synagogue. As long as you deal with the matter with respect, love and understanding, I think that's the main thing. And you don't need to lie to him or go against your own personal truths to do that. Fwiw, I was brought up a Catholic and I was bloody terrified about the idea of death at your son's age. I also mourned very deeply for people who died when I was young, and in fact got quite enraged at the idea that I shouldn't feel sad 'because they are happy now' which was a thing I often heard at religious funerals.
If you Google the water bugs story, I think it is brilliant. It does have a concept of after life - about bugs climbing a lily stalk, turning into dragonflies and then being unable to tell their mates what had happened after they had gone up the stalk.
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