A Fear Greater Than Death

by Jackie Brown

“Am I going to die someday, Mom?!”

I will never forget when my older son, now seven, not only grasped the concept of death but applied it to himself in the same day.

“Yes,” I leveled with him, “all living things eventually die.”

The waterfall of tears started immediately as he panicked and pleaded with his father and I, saying that he didn’t want to die.

It’s okay, son.  When you die, you go to Heaven.”  It would have been such an easy “out,” wouldn’t it?  I get why people use it as an explanation.  I get why people buy into it.

Even as a 33-year-old, death can scare me silly if I think about it too much.  Every once in awhile I do, and I find myself on the verge of a panic attack.  I think, “Oh my gosh, I could go…at any minute…gone forever!”  Then, I come to my senses and take comfort in the idea that I’m a relatively healthy adult with a strong sense of self-preservation; I’m probably going to live a long time.  Sometimes I fantasize about being that crabby elderly atheist lady to whom no one can say anything because no one argues with the elderly; they’ve simply had too much time on earth not to respect their “rank”.

So, we didn’t tell that lie to our son.  We didn’t tell him that he’s going to Heaven.  When someone did tell him that lie, we told him that we didn’t believe in it.  We believe that when you die, you die.  That’s why it’s so important to be good while you’re here; you only get one shot!

“But, when you die, eventually your body goes back into the soil,” we told him, “and parts of you get to be a part of something else in nature again someday.  So, a part of you will always exist.”  That seems far more beautiful to me than a bunch of rules or having to profess your love for some god, and profess a love stronger than any love you feel for anyone else.

My progressive Christian friends really like to tout the “God is Love” phrase, and I get why that is.  No one wants to be told they’re going to Hell.  Few Christians even want to think or be reminded of the wrath of the Old Testament god, but there are some who will tell their children about that jealous, needy god.  My parents told me about him, and it scared me senseless!

Well into adulthood I still clung to religion and the hope that there was a god because I was so fearful of a devil who wanted my soul and demons who I was convinced wanted to possess me as was explained to me when I was a child.  I can’t really say that I ever believed in a god.  My parents and the churches they took me to really tried to convince me.  There were people “speaking in tongues” and people so “filled with the spirit” that they would run around the sanctuary.  Now I think many of those people just so desperately wanted to believe that they subconsciously prompted themselves to do that, and then there were some who purposely deceived.

But it brings me to my point in this story.  Such a wonderful story was perpetrated to convince me that good and evil forces were in a grand fight for my soul!  What a horrible, horrible lesson for a child. To me, it is tantamount to abuse to convince or even just to tell a child that if she doesn’t pander to the good side enough, the evil side will win and consequently may win her soul.

So, in our discomfort, sitting there with our sobbing son in his discomfort, we were honest with him.  We told him that he will someday die and that will be that.  We told him this is what we believe and that other people have other thoughts on the matter (reincarnation, among the plethora of other ideas, can be saved for a later date).  We sat in our discomfort and his, and we allowed his sorrow.

We allowed him to experience the range of emotions because “Heaven” may be an easy out, but its partner “Hell” is a concept that will be far more damaging in the long run than the thought of someday no longer walking on this earth.

He cried, and then he laughed.  And then he cried again.  And we just assured him it would be okay, and we told him that he would most likely live a long and wonderful life.  We were honest with him, and I am sure someday he will appreciate us for it.

I am sure we have already laid the foundation for a relationship built on trust rather than fear.  I give this to my children willingly, without fear, and with the knowledge that it may not always be comfortable.  I give it to them despite the potential heartache.  I give it to them despite the potential for unanswerable questions.

I give them the truth because it was not given to me.

I was not allowed to make up my own mind, but my children will always be given that right and provided with an environment, in which to make those decisions, without coercion or fear.

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5 Responses to A Fear Greater Than Death

  1. Shelby says:

    I applaud your honesty with your son. We had that talk with one of our sons a 4 after he started questioning death. It was really hard but pointing out that we still had relatives that were alive in their 90′s and he was only 4 helped alot. You are a better parent for not lying to your kids.

  2. annew says:

    What a timely post Jackie! I’ve started a small secular parenting group in my town and we had a new parent who came to our last meeting who had concerns about how to talk to her child about death. We’ve all had to deal with it in one way or another, and all of us had thought how much easier it would be to say “GrandPa is in Heaven”. Ultimately, not having the “religious answer” to fall back on has made us all face the question of death in a way we probably didn’t have to growing up in traditional religious households. I’ve chosen to focus on the way a person’s memory lives on in us and in all they lives they touched. Others, like you, think of the physical aspects of dying and the fact that all of our atoms will remain and be used again for other purposes. Having to face the question of death early in our family, Grandpa died when my son was only 3 years old, helped me grow as a parent and as a person. We found ways to comfort and reassure without lying! What a great learning experience it was. Can I print out your post and bring it to our next parenting meeting? I know it will be of interest to our small group. Thanks for the post.

  3. karen Loe says:

    It’s great hearing from another atheist parent, willing to offer the truth to their children.
    I have a very sensitive 11 year old son. When we had this discussion, I was very gentle and comforting and soothing. He got the message AND felt very comfortable with the truth. And now, an older child, he states clearly that he is happy to know the truth AND to know that he can always count on me for truth. Further, he states that he would not want the false comfort of “heaven” because it gives the impression that there is another place and time to be “good”, rather than being kind HERE and NOW.
    *grin*

    Raising another sweet and thoughtful atheist child,
    Karen

  4. voodoo6677 says:

    Well done…

  5. jniertit says:

    thank you for this! my 4 year old just asked this question tonight and started crying after we told him what we believe. I’d had all these more comforting answers in my head to tell him when the time came but they seemed a little abstract for him (we’ll become part of the earth again etc.), and i just didn’t expect this question from a 4yo! reading your piece helped.
    ~jen

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