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How do I explain death to a 3.5 year old? (I am an atheist)

(32 Posts)
TheBlonde Tue 02-Dec-08 19:35:02

DS will be attending a cremation
He won't remember the deceased but I need to explain why we are there and what we are doing iyswim

Smithagain Tue 02-Dec-08 19:46:09

Does he know about animals dying? My 3yo is startlingly matter of fact about death.

In terms of what the cremation is all about, I think I'd say the person has died and he/she doesn't need his/her body anymore, so we are saying goodbye to it. Some people might be sad because they liked the person very much. People will talk about the person to help them remember him/her.

OldLadyKnowsNothing Tue 02-Dec-08 19:48:15

If the deceased was elderly, you could explain it in terms of "wearing out" - like toys, or clothes. You're sad that this person has worn out but it happens to every living creature, and you're there to say "Goodbye". Do not, under any circumstances, say anything about "falling asleep forever"!

Wheelybug Tue 02-Dec-08 19:49:29

Hi !

Somewhere someone on here had a good analogy with a puppet/sock on hand. I don't think it was religious based. I think it may have been twiglett. Will see if I can find it.

Wheelybug Tue 02-Dec-08 19:51:00


thisisyesterday Tue 02-Dec-08 19:52:19

ds1 knows that people/animals die. but i don't think he knows what it means.
tbh I am not sure they are capable of really understanding it at this age.
ds1 is aware that a close friend of ours passed away recently and refers to her as dead, but as he hasn't asked any more questions I haven't offered any more info,.

not sure if that's the right approach though

moopymoo Tue 02-Dec-08 19:53:20

I have struggled with this and listened a bit wistfully when my christian mate explained to her 4 year old that god would be looking after grandma and that she was in a beautiful place full of white light. lovely, but not enough for me to spin that particular yarn Im afraid. ( though I will tell him there is a Father Christmas.. Why is that ok? DIscuss...)I recently read a book on death anxiety by irvin yalom and some of the stuff about us going to a state that we have known before birth might translate for a small child.

TheBlonde Tue 02-Dec-08 20:08:11

Hi Wheely - thanks for the link

Smithagain - I don't think he's aware about animals dying

At the moment he is asking lots of questions so I want to be prepared for any that might arise

OldLadyKnowsNothing - Thanks for the tip about not mentioning "falling asleep forever"

amerryscot Tue 02-Dec-08 20:10:16

An atheist explanation? Their heart stopped beating?

TheBlonde Tue 02-Dec-08 20:13:31

Not sure I am up for explaining in detail how the body works and which bits failed on the person concerned

amerryscot Tue 02-Dec-08 20:15:34

But that is the explanation, blonde. Anything more and you are acknowledging the person's spirituality.

TheBlonde Tue 02-Dec-08 20:17:16

Maybe I'll just take the shit happens approach shock

teenspirit Tue 02-Dec-08 20:19:02

Just cause your an athiest doesn't mean you have to be blunt when describing death to a child. I would just say they are living with the angels now - to a 3 year old an angel is like santa, or a monster or the easter bunny it's a make believe entity that they believe in. You can have serious discussions about life and death when they are older and can make their own decisions.

amerryscot Tue 02-Dec-08 20:19:43

An angel is very firmly part of the spirit world!

LittleJingleBellas Tue 02-Dec-08 20:23:27

Depends on whether you want to stress that death is the end, nothingness, or whether you want to dress it up

I quite like Philip Pullman's version, of the souls breaking out into millions of tiny tiny atoms and floating out through the air and trees forever. Sounds rather fun and not too scary for a child.

TheBlonde Tue 02-Dec-08 21:17:32

Not sure that I can dress it up really, it's reminded me of a poem that ends "You’re dead, you’re dead, you’re dead indeed"

beansmum Tue 02-Dec-08 21:26:32

When my Grandfather died last year I just told ds that his body had stopped working and it couldn't be fixed. I explained that this happens when you get very old and worn out or you are very ill. My mum has had pets die and we've read books where people die so he understands that it is final. I think kids are usually pretty ok about death as long as you are honest about it. ds quite happily tells me that I will probably die before he does because I am so old!

PavlovtheCat Tue 02-Dec-08 21:28:15

I love Smithagain's explanation - simple, truthful, and not dismissing any potential religious/non-religious views of people there.

TheBlonde Wed 03-Dec-08 13:06:00


Smithagain Wed 03-Dec-08 17:07:29


As it happens, I am a Christian. But I also work with children who may or may not be. So I do try and come up with simple words that don't presume any particular belief system.

There is also a risk of over-analysing. He's only three. He lives in the moment and he just needs to know what's going on while you're there. It's unlikely he'll worry too much about what you, or anyone else, thinks might happen to the person from this point onwards. Plenty of time for discussions about that.

Smithagain Wed 03-Dec-08 17:09:16

PS - I hope it goes OK - and that you are OK.

TheBlonde Mon 15-Dec-08 19:49:29

Thanks Smithagain - it went okay

believer07 Wed 17-Dec-08 08:55:44

This an interesting disussion, as most people who never give God a second thought often start going on that 'such and such is with the angels now'. I think that few people have the courage of thier convictions to just say the truth of what they believe. If your an athiest I assume that you would just think that we all evolved and therefore we are just dead and nothing beyond. Most atheists are adults as most children seem to have a natural concept of an afterlife of a spirit world that is usually educated out of them, or bashed out of them by some sort of overbearing religion.

Indeed it seems a very hard thing to tell a small child that a person is just dead and gone back to the dust.

milfAKAmonkeymonkeymoomoo Wed 17-Dec-08 09:00:43

My DD is 2.9 when my Dad died I said his body had stopped working and he was now at sea (we spread his ashes at sea) forever, a place he loved most.

joyfuleyes Wed 17-Dec-08 11:33:39

I've never brought angels or heaven or god into it (we've suffered many breavements as a family, including losing a son in the summer). I deal with my daughter's grief honestly & answer her questions simply & without resorting to fairy tales.

I explain that their body has stopped working (dd is 8 now & always wants details) & that they aren't here anymore & will never be again. But that we remember them, love them & talk about them & death hasn't stopped them being part of our family.

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