How to comfort children?

I’ve been raised agnostic atheist by my parents, but have had a lot of interest in different religions throughout my life and consider myself religion-curios. Regardless, I’ve been raising my children with no overt religious or faith tones, as I always appreciated my parents for leaving me this choice.

My problem is this: I have a very sensitive daughter who is horrified of death. A friend’s father died when she was two or three and she hasn’t stopped asking questions about where he is, and what it’s like to be dead sincce. Her friend told her about God and heaven, and she seemed to like the idea and find it comforting, but when she turned to me for an explanation, I told her about my own beliefs, ie. that nobody really knows. This prospect scared her immensely, and she has been pestering me ever since, ie. for nearly four years. She can go into hysterics when she sees somebody die in a film, or hears about it in real life.

It appears to me it might have been better to have kept her in a fantasy world a little longer. Or?

How do you explain the atheist worldview to a child? Do you?
(Assuming they ask, of course, not as indoctrination.)

Posted: May 31st 2012

donsevers www

My 8 year old has had moments like you describe in your child. When he is afraid, I just hold him.

Galen is right. Fear of death is based on a misconception: that we can be dead. Most people are afraid of eternal nothingness. That’s a misconception. Death is our end, so we won’t be anywhere to experience anything, not even nothingness.

But it’s not clear that a child can grasp this. Ernest Becker, in the Denial of Death, said that those who are in a panic about death have it right. Those who are not afraid are in denial.

I don’t quite agree with Becker because we normally are afraid in proportion to the likelihood of something happening soon. Sure, we could die at any time, but so could anyone else, and the likelihood is low. To be rational, we should apportion our dread accordingly. There really are more important things to worry about. I’m 50 and getting along with my wife and kids or my job is more likely to go badly than my health.

Life is a bizarre and poignant grab bag. Among the delightful things are some WTF items like panic disorder, sudden death and pediatric cancer. We can’t shield kids from all of life’s horrors. You’re doing the right thing. You love your child and you’re asking for help. That’s all I know to do.

Posted: June 6th 2012

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Galen Rose www

I think I would begin by telling your child that it’s extremely unlikely that she will die for a very long time, and then add that when it does happen, she won’t care. When we are dead, we don’t care.

Ask her if she remembers what it felt like before she was alive. Of course, it didn’t feel like anything because when we aren’t alive we have no feelings.

You might compare death to sleep. When we are asleep, we don’t know it. We don’t miss being awake since we don’t even know that we aren’t awake. When we are asleep nothing matters. Death must be very much like that.

Being alive is great and we should certainly enjoy this wonderful stroke of luck that we are alive, and we should certainly try to stay alive by taking care of ourselves. But, when we are dead, it won’t matter anymore because, without a conscious mind, we simply won’t care.

Posted: June 6th 2012

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