by Brianna Young, Raising Freethinkers blog
As a Christian, explaining death is very simple. You die, but you’re not gone. There is hope after death. It’s comforting and easy to say. It makes people feel good, and it is supposed to alleviate our fear of dying. However, as a child who grew up in a strict Southern Baptist home, I found that quite the opposite is true. The idea of the afterlife provided no solace for me. I was constantly afraid of death, mostly because I had doubts of the truthfulness of the Bible. When I asked my parents about death, they told me the same thing my church pastor told me, which is the same thing the Bible says. I was afraid that if I was wrong for doubting, god would punish me by sending me to burn in hell. I carried around a great deal of anxiety over this thought, and it spilled over into adulthood and parenthood. That is, until I realized that I don’t believe the Bible is true.
I suddenly felt free. I let go of the burden of judgement after death and came to grips with the fact that I will just cease to exist. Now, instead of death and the afterlife being the focus of my energy, life itself is the focus. I feel more fulfilled as a humanist and skeptic than I ever did as a Christian. It is this feeling of freedom and this love for life that I want to pass on to my kids.
My oldest, who will be five in November, has recently become interested in what happens when people, animals, and even things, die. She asks about birds, frogs, trees, plants, people, cars, buildings, and computers. She wants to know what happens to things when their functionality ceases. She is curious as to where they go and what they do, and how people deal with the fact that someone or something they care about is gone. It’s been a struggle for me, because I want so badly to give her the easy answers, but I know that a) the easy answer isn’t the truth and b) it could very well cause her to feel the same fears about death that I did. I cannot put her through that, so I have taken a different approach.
In the spirit of true skepticism, I encourage her to think about what happens when something dies. We talked about a frog not long ago, for example. My husband found him while doing yard work and brought him in for the kids to see. We put him in a jar with the intention of releasing him later that morning. He didn’t make it. He died in the jar.
“Did he die?” my oldest girl asked me.
“Yes, he did,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“Why?” she asked, her mouth turning down into a slight frown.
“Because he didn’t have the water he needed to live. We brought him inside and put him in a dry jar, and he couldn’t keep living in a place that isn’t his home,” I wasn’t sure how else to explain it. I could tell she was upset about it.
“What will happen to him?” she asked.
“What do you think?” I asked her, smiling. This is the question that always perks her up. She loves to talk about what she thinks, and I find that truly incredible. A conversation began right then and there about how dead animal bodies turn back into earth, and how the energy from their bodies helps feed the trees and plants (and sometimes other animals). She finds this fascinating, and her frown quickly dissolves. Discussions like this always lead to her saying, “What happens when I die?”
To that, I reply, “The very same thing that happens to animals – your body goes back into the earth . Before you were born, the tiny atoms that make up your body now were actually parts of fruit, vegetables, and other things that mommy ate while you were in my tummy. When you were in my tummy, growing into a baby, your brain grew too. When you came out of my tummy, you grew even more, and your brain began to think (she likes this idea).”
I go on to explain that growing and getting old is part of life, and that dying happens to all people and is nothing to be afraid of. I tell her it will be like before she is born. She will not know the difference. We talk about remembering people and animals that have died in our memories, and how that helps them live on. I explain to her that her life is very special because she has only one, and there will never be another like her. We talk about how much we love each other and our family, and how fun it is to enjoy the world.
We have a variation of this conversation anytime the subject of death comes up. When she asks about things that aren’t alive, we talk about what happens to their parts when they can no longer do what they were made to do. We talk about recycling and reusing broken things. We talk about giving things that work but are no longer needed to people who can use them. I like these talks because they get her to think, and they help her find comfort in the idea of death, instead of the dread and fear that I felt as a child. The conversations always end with her feeling satisfied that she learned something. She wasn’t handed an answer to believe without reason. I know when a family member dies, it’s going to be tough. But I think our conversations about animals and dead cars and computers are going to help her deal with grief in a very positive way. I know that talking about it openly and honestly has given her a great joy for living, and her thankfulness for the little things always amazes me.
My kids may have it tougher growing up as freethinkers in such a conservative place, but I also know that they will be happier, more fulfilled adults because of the curiosity my husband and I are fostering in their budding minds.
Don’t be afraid to talk about death. Overcoming your own fears about death is important for having open discussions about it with your children. Take them out and show them examples of what happens to dead things. Kids understand more than we realize, so don’t underestimate how much of the process of living and dying they can understand, even at a young age. Letting them know that death is a normal part of life is sure to keep fear from becoming overpowering, and will help them realize the importance of living life to the fullest.