Q: How can a nonreligious person comfort a child who has experienced a devastating loss?
A: Nonreligious parents who suffered the loss of a close relative when they were young often tell of the well-meaning but very unhelpful things that were said to them: "I know your mother is in heaven with God." "Jesus took her because she was so good." ("Now be a good girl and eat your peas.")
It's hard to find a mainstream expert on grief who considers religious consolations useful or even advisable when comforting a bereaved child. After offering many of the suggestions listed below, such experts will typically include an apologetic coda— something like, "Depending on your family's religious tradition, you may wish to explain a person's death to your children in terms of God's will or an afterlife. But be aware that such statements as 'she went to be with Jesus'
can lead to feelings of confusion and abandonment, while 'God took her to be with him' can cause feelings of anger followed by guilt and fear."5 Worst of all is any suggestion that the child should not be sad ("You should be happy! She's with Jesus now"), which discounts and invalidates the child's natural grief.
That's what not to say and do. So what do grief specialists across the board recommend?
• Be honest. Don't pretend that anything less than the worst event of her life has happened. Validate her pain and grief. Tell the child it is not just "okay" to be sad: It's good. Her sadness honors her mother, showing that she loved her very much, and expresses real feelings instead of keeping them locked inside.
• Share emotions. Keeping a stiff upper lip in front of the children is of no help whatsoever for a grieving child. Let her know that you are grieving too—or better yet, show it.
tt Death is a fact of life. As rational adults we all know this. As anxious parents, however, we also want to deny it and to protect our children from the painful reality, especially when someone close to them is dying or dies. But as we have learned from the mishandling of subjects like sexuality with children, ignorance and avoidance of a mysterious, frightening or emotionally charged issue can breed needless fears and anxieties, inappropriate behavior and persistent psychological trauma.^^
—Jane Brody, Personal Health column, New York Times, August 12, 1987
• Be patient. There is no healthy or effective way to rush a grief process. The suggestion that "it's time to move on" should come only from the griever, not from the outside.
• Listen. Invite the child to share what she is feeling if she wants to. If not, respect her silence. Listen without judgment.
• Reassure. You can't bring back the deceased parent, nor can you pretend he or she is somewhere else. But you can and should do everything possible to make the child feel personally safe, loved, and cared for.
• Speak openly. The absence of the parent is the single most painful element of the loss. Avoiding the parent's name or discussion of the person can often make that sense of absence more painful and more acute. Share memories of the person and use her name or "your mom." If tears result, remember: the goal is not to avoid sadness, but to help the child work through the intense grief. Let her be the one to tell you if a conversation is too painful.
Outstanding resource: Trozzi, Maria. Talking with Children About Loss (New York: Perigee Trade, 1999).
Q: What about the reverse? A friend of mine who is a nonreligious parent recently lost her daughter to leukemia. I cannot even imagine the pain she's feeling. All I want to do is take that pain away. Is that even possible without the promise of heaven?
A: No, it isn't possible without heaven—nor is it possible with it. Even religious parents who have lost a child still suffer an immense and consuming blow. Some even describe feeling guilt on top of the grief as they are reminded, repeatedly, that all is well in heaven and feel no better for it.
I agree that the loss of a child must surely be the most incomprehensible pain possible. One of the best things you can do is acknowledge that. Never say, "I know how you feel." You don't. Better by far to phrase it just as you have: "I cannot even imagine the pain you're feeling."
Although you can't remove the pain, there are ways to help your friend through the pain of the grief process:
• Be there. Your presence can't fill the void left by the lost child, but bereaved parents often describe that void becoming overwhelming when the parent is alone. Offer a hug, conversation, and the simple expression "I am so sorry." Listen. Avoid all judgments.
• Relieve everyday burdens. Don't wait to be asked. Take over bill payments, household chores, running the other children to school or sports, running errands—so long as such help does not leave the parent alone and isolated.
• Pay special attention to surviving siblings, many of whom will suppress their own grief to avoid burdening the parents. Talk to them and acknowledge their own loss.
• Talk about the child. As in the case of a parent's death, avoiding the mention of the deceased can make the absence more intense.
• Stay in touch. Things will never be the same for a bereaved parent. Don't assume that a return to work or the passage of a set amount of time represents the end of a need for support.6
Outstanding organization for bereaved parents: The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org), with more than 600 chapters in the United States and United Kingdom. "Espouse[s] no specific religious or philosophical ideology."
Q: I have heard of the Day of the Dead celebration from Mexico. What is it? Would it be a good way for secular parents to help our children think about death?
A: The Day of the Dead (celebrated November 1-2) is a fascinating example of the syncretism found in many cultures with colonization in their past. The practices and beliefs of the invading culture (in this case Catholic Spain) are melded with local practices and beliefs (in this case the ancient Aztec festival of Mictecacihuatl, queen of the underworld and guardian of the dead) to produce new traditions.7
Like the Celtic festival of Samhain,8 the Day of the Dead recognizes the moment when summer turns to winter as a time when the worlds of the living and the dead are in close proximity. People build altars to draw visits from their beloved dead, filling them with flowers and the loved ones' favorite foods.
Visits are made to cemeteries to communicate with the dead. Towns hold macabre processions of people dressed as skeletons or as deceased relatives, rattling beads and shells to wake the dead.
Many U.S. communities now hold Day of the Dead celebrations, especially those with large Mexican expatriate populations. Although the Virgin Mary is now woven into the celebration in place of Mictecacihuatl, there are many elements of the holiday that secular families can adopt, enjoy, and use to reflect on death and the preciousness it lends to life.
(See Chapter 6, "Celebrating Life," for more on the Day of the Dead.)
Q: My son is in preschool and hears all of the time from his friends that their dead grandparents go to heaven after they die and that they will see them when they die. My son has now decided that that is the truth. How can I get him away from this position? Or should I?
A: Don't think of a preschool dalliance with belief as "deciding the truth."You should expect your child to try on different religious hats along the way, declaring this or that belief, then switching a week later. It is part of a very healthy process of making up his own mind about religious questions. Simply:
• Let him know what you believe and why.
• Encourage him to question his own beliefs and the beliefs of others, including yours.
• Engage in broad-based comparative religious education as described in Chapter 3.
• Let him know that he can change his mind a thousand times and (most important) that the final decision is entirely his—and mean it.
Q: Should my children (ages 6, 8, and 10) attend the funeral of their grandmother?
A: Although this depends largely on the emotional makeup of each child, I strongly recommend allowing any child who wishes to attend to do so. In addition to the emotional benefits of closure, the children will have an opportunity to observe a family and community in the process of grieving and saying goodbye and to be a part of that process. They will hear their grandmother being eulogized and remembered by those who loved her, and they will have an opportunity to begin a lifelong contemplation of tt Every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize, which isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards, that's not important. . . . I'd like somebody to mention that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I'd like for somebody to say that day, that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to feed the hungry. . . . I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I
the deepest questions surrounding life and won't have any money to leave death. behind. I won't have the fine
Ideally, you will have prepared them for and luxurious things of life to years by talking about death in naturalistic leave behind. But I just want and unforced ways as described throughout to leave a committed life this chapter, from the dead bird in the back- behind. yard to walks in cemeteries. Given this preparation, the funeral of a loved one is a natural and good step forward in the process of pondering the imponderable.
—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from an address at Ebenezer Baptist Church, February 4,1968
Q: A friend of our family died recently, and now my daughter is really worried that her dad or I will die. She keeps asking me what will happen to her if we die. How do I answer her in a way that is realistic but also reassuring?
A: The fear that his or her parents will die very often precedes and overshadows any fears a child has about his or her own mortality. Among other things, there is a sense that the older generation stands between us and death—that you are shielded from it so long as your parents are still around.9
Let your child know of the many ways in which you take care of yourself and each other. No need to pretend that this is certain protection. In fact, your question implies that she has already begun to consider the aftereffects of such an event. Take the time to consider and plan for this eventuality yourself, designating a guardian or guardians, and letting your child know that even this unlikely possibility has been thought through, and that she would be safe and cared for.
Q: We need to decide who will care for our child if something should happen to us but are having some difficulty making the decision. Our siblings and parents are all very religious, have parenting views very different from our own, and live in other states. What can we do about this decision?
A: This is a difficult but important decision, one that all parents must take the time to make.
One of the best ways to proceed is to consider the hypothetical situation as concretely as possible. Your children have lost both parents, presumably without warning, throwing their world into a tailspin. Everything will have changed for them. The two most important considerations in this case are security and continuity. In other words, you want your children to end up in the
No doubt about it: We were on a Seussian bender. For three weeks, every bedtime story had been from the gruffulous world of Dr. Seuss. Then one night, in the middle of Oh, The Places You'll Go! we ran smack into mortality.
ERIN (9): Is he still alive? DAD: Who? ERIN: Dr. Seuss.
DAD: Oh. No, he died about fifteen years ago, I think. But he had a good long life first.
I suddenly became aware that Delaney (6) was very quietly sobbing. DAD : Oh, sweetie, what's the matter? DELANEY: Is anybody taking his place? DAD : What do you mean, punkin?
DELANEY: Is anybody taking Dr. Seuss's place to write his books? (Begins a deep cry.) Because I love them so much, I don't want him to be all-done!
I hugged her tightly and started giving every lame comfort I could muster—everything short of "I'm sure he's in Heaven writing Revenge of the Lorax."
I scanned the list of Seuss books on the back cover. "Hey, you know what?" I offered lamely. "We haven't even read half of his books yet!"
"But we will read them all!" she shot back. "And then there won't be any more!" I had only moved the target, which didn't solve the problem in the least.
Laney wants to be a writer. I seized on this, telling her she could be the next Dr. Seuss. She liked that idea, and we finished the book. The next day she was at work on a story called "What Do I Sound Like?" about a girl who didn't know her own voice because she had never spoken.
My instinct whenever one of my kids cries — especially that deep, sincere, wounded cry—is to get her happy again. This once entailed nothing more than putting something on my head — anything would do — at which point laughter would replace tears. It's a bit harder once they're older and, instead of skinned knees, they are saddened by the limitations imposed by mortality on the people they love.
But is "getting them happy again" the right goal?
Death is immensely sad, even as it makes life more precious. It's supposed to be. So I shouldn't be too quick to put something on my head or dream up a consolation every time my kids encounter the sadness of mortality. Let them think about what it means that Dr. Seuss is all-done, and even cry that deep, sincere, heartbreaking cry.
care of someone who will keep them safe (physically and emotionally) and provide the least jarring transition.
Religious expressions vary considerably, so you would need to consider where in the spectrum your family members fall. Moving children from a freethought home to a conservative religious home, even with well-meaning guardians, can be quite unsettling to the children at precisely the moment they need stability. If, on the other hand, a home is of a progressive religious orientation, it's entirely possible that a stable transition could be negotiated. Many liberal religionists would be perfectly willing to raise your children in an open questioning environment. Ask the person you are considering how he or she would handle questions about religion, about authority, and about the boundaries of inquiry.
Child welfare advocates also recommend minimizing other disruptions as much as possible, such as moving to another city or state or changing schools.
If you have family friends who you know well, whose parenting style and beliefs are a better fit with yours, who live locally, and are willing to take on the responsibility, such considerations can and should trump family relationships. That's a lot of ifs, but they're worth weighing. And once you've decided on the best situation for your kids (and confirmed it with the person you've chosen), put it in writing. Consult a legal professional for advice on creating a binding document.
Q: My husband and I disagree about the importance of making advance plans for our own funerals. He wants us to write out detailed plans, but I just don't care. I'll be gone! Bury me, burn me, shoot me into space, whatever turns you on! Am I missing something?
A: Well, yes. You are making the false assumption that funerals have more to do with the dead than the living.
As far as you are concerned, it may indeed matter not one bit what your funeral is like. But think of your survivors, those who loved you and knew about your beliefs. Unless you've made it quite clear what you want, or equally clear that you don't care, they will immediately have to wrestle with massive uncertainty. Should we have a clergyman officiate? Can it be in a church, or is that inappropriate? Will Aunt Gladys blow a vein if we hang a picture of Andromeda over the crucifix? Is "Ave Maria" too religious to have sung?
You get the idea. The nonreligious have an even greater responsibility to be explicit because there's no institution spelling it out for their survivors. Many religious expressions have the same basic interchangeable funereal elements, but a nonreligious service has to be planned from scratch. If you do wish to keep religion out of it, use the books in the Resource section to spell out your wishes, right down to the music and readings. Or, if you truly don't care, make that absolutely explicit to spare your heirs from infighting, guilt, and uncertainty.
Q: Neither of my kids (3 and 6) has ever had to deal with death, but they have several older relatives to whom they are very close. How can I prepare my kids as well as possible for their first encounter with death?
A: The first way is to naturalize the topic from the very beginning. We have an almost unlimited ability to accept things, even incredibly strange and difficult things, if they are presented to us as normal form the start. Next time you talk to your mother, flash on the fact that you emerged into the world through her body. It doesn't get stranger than that—but because (storkists aside) we have always known this, we simply talk to her as if she were another person in the world instead of our portal into it. We accept something transcendently strange as normal because it has never been otherwise. The inimitable Douglas Adams captured this nicely when he said, "The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be."10
The same applies to mortality. If children start out with the knowledge that we genuinely die, they will think this to be normal. Not exciting, not even easy, perhaps, but they are much more likely to accept the reality and actually get on with the lifelong work of understanding it if they begin with it. They might even see how it makes every moment of life itself so much more fantastically precious. So never treat death as an untouchable subject. Touch it all over. The more familiar, the less frightening. It's a lifelong challenge to come to terms with death, but our kids will be all the further along if they don't have to waste time and effort erasing heaven and hell from their conceptual maps.
Pets can also contribute, however unwillingly, to our lifelong education in mortality. Although we don't buy pets in order for kids to experience death (with the possible exception of aquariums, aack!), most every pet short of a giant land tortoise will predecease its owner. The deaths of my various guinea pigs, dogs, fish, and rabbits were my first introductions to irretrievable loss. At their passings, I learned both how to grieve and the depth of love I was capable of feeling. And I am certain they helped prepare me for the sudden loss of my father. It didn't make the loss itself any easier, nor did it shorten my grief, which continues to this day. But the grief didn't blindside me in quite the way it would have if my father's death had been my first experience of profound loss.
Q: I can understand that the experience of a pet's death helps to prepare a child for even more traumatic losses to come, but how can I help my kids weather the loss of the pet itself? We have a much-loved older dog, and I'm concerned as I think of the huge impact his death will have on my kids. What should I say? What should I do with the body? I want this to be a healthy experience for all of us about handling our emotions and the logistics of death.
A: The death of a pet can be nearly as devastating to a child as the death of another member of the family. The first priority is to recognize that and to be certain you are taking the loss just that seriously. That said, here are a few of the guidelines agreed upon by child development specialists:
• Prepare well in advance. Talking about the fact that your dog will not live forever can help them to make the most of their remaining time with him and to feel that they have properly said goodbye. Take photos and videos with the pet. If they wish, have children write a letter to the pet while still living expressing their love for him.
• Be honest. Just as in the death of a person, it is important to be honest about what has happened. Don't say that Prince has gone on a trip or (yikes) that he fell asleep and didn't wake up. Take advantage of the opportunity to gently introduce the reality of death while reassuring the child of the many consolations that can help us through our grief.
• Involve the child—up to a point. If you do plan to bury the pet (and yes, that is an acceptable option if City Hall allows it), give the child the option of attending. Announcing that the pet has been buried after the fact can seriously impede the grieving process, delay a sense of closure, and fracture the child's trust in you. Have everyone tell stories about the pet over the grave, sing a song, leave a toy, say goodbye. It is never appropriate, however, to involve a child in the decision to euthanize a pet. Such a complex and multilayered ethical decision is agony even for adults. In most cases it is also not advised that young children be present for the euthanasia, although teens may wish to decide for themselves. It can be helpful to the grief process for the children to see the pet once more after the euthanasia is completed. It's a moment guaranteed to break any parent's heart, but many parents report that the closure process is more difficult without that final visit.
• Validate their sadness and encourage their thinking. As with the death of a person, it's important to validate their pain and grief, to give them permission to cry, and to allow them to see and hear your own feelings. Invite questions and answer them gently but honestly. This will often be your child's first engagement in a lifelong inquiry. Honor that process by attending to it.
These early experiences can literally teach children how to grieve—a non-negotiable part of every life. In the process, they can learn much about themselves and their own emotions while moving forward in their reflections on the fact that everything that lives also dies.
Q: My 7-year-old daughter has recently been expressing fears about her own death. How can I comfort her when I don't believe in an afterlife?
A: Philosophers throughout the ages have grappled with the idea of death and produced some genuine consolations for the more mature mind, several of which are discussed below. As for the youngest kids, there are two main ways to relieve immediate fears:
1. Distance in time. It make seem like a cheap sleight-of-hand, but simply assuring the youngest children that they will live a long, long time before dying is quite effective. When at the age of 7 my daughter Erin first said, "I don't want to die," I simply replied, "I know what you mean. I don't either! But you're gonna live a hundred years first. You'll be older than Mom, even older than Grandma before your life is done!" To a 7-year-old, "older than Grandma" is close enough to immortal to alleviate fear (at least until the midlife crisis).
2. Correct misconceptions of death. When I was a kid trying to conceive of death without an afterlife, I got a truly terrifying image—let's call it "me-floating-in-darkness-forever." Compared to that (and compared to the terror of hell and the boredom of heaven), genuine nonexistence is downright lovely.
Q: So how do you conceive of nonexistence? I have a devil of a time grasping it myself.
A: You do, eh? Then I'm guessing you are a conscious being. There's nothing harder for a conscious being to conceive than unconscious nonbeing. It's entirely outside our experience because it is the absence of experience, the absence of perception.
That's the flaw in "me-floating-in-darkness." Darkness must be perceived. Instead, you have to grasp nonexistence. And there's one great way to do this: by recognizing that you "nonexisted" before—and for quite a long time at that.
This idea, variously attributed to the philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius, is called the "symmetry argument." Your life is bounded not by one period of nonexistence, but two: the period after your death and the period before your birth. If a child—or an adult, for that matter—expresses fear at the idea of death, ask if she was afraid a hundred years ago. When she laughs and says "Of course not! I wasn't anywhere!" explain that the time after her life is done will be exactly the same. There is literally no difference. There's some real consolation there.
Q: What other consolations of philosophy and science can help nonreligious people come to terms with death?
A: Different people find consolation in different ideas and at different stages in their consideration of mortality. Here are three others to try on for size:
1. Conservation. National Public Radio commentator Aaron Freeman offered a thought-provoking consolation in the form of an essay titled "You Want a Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral." An excerpt:
You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy... every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world
There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith The science is sound According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.11
Some will find physical conservation to be irrelevant and unconsoling. Others, myself included, see a door to a greater appreciation for our part in the continuing cosmos. Every atom of your body has been around since the dawn of time and will continue to the end of time. That they assembled to form you for a little while is astonishing and wonderful. That "you" continue to exist, albeit in greater disarray, is a point well worth pondering.
2. The inversion of death and life. We tend to think of life as our natural condition and death as some sort of affront to that condition. But seeing your existence in the longer view can flip that on its head. Since the stuff that makes you up has always been here and will always be here, nonexis-tence can be seen as our normal condition. But for one short blip in that vast nonexistence, pop—here you are. Existing. Conscious. Instead of seeing death as an outrage, this view allows us to see death as the universal norm and life as the giddy exception.
Arthur Dobrin puts it this way: "I think there are two ultimate sources of comfort for the bereaved. The first is the recognition that the great mystery is not death but birth, not that someone loved is now gone but that the person was here at all."12 By really grasping this inverted view, our mourning of death can be converted to gratitude for life.
3. How amazingly unlikely was your birth. Closely related to the above is the contemplation of the incredible odds against each of us ever existing. For billions of years, you were simply stuff—a lot of dissociated elements. Most of the universe—99.999999+ percent of it—remains insensate, unconscious, inert. But you got lucky. Out of all the quadrillions of possible combinations of elements and DNA, and despite the infinite number of things that could have kept all of your direct ancestors from meeting, from finding each other attractive, from mating (at precisely the right time) and from raising you to adulthood—despite all of that incredible improbability, here you are. Congratulations.
In the light of that incredible good fortune, whining about the fact that life doesn't go on forever begins to seem incredibly piggy, don't you think?
These are some of the consolations I find meaningful. Others find consolation in art, in music, in transcendent poetry—or in the mythic imagination. Take your pick.
Q: My 10-year-old nephew was recently struck by a car and killed. How can I help my children deal with their cousin's sudden death at so young an age?
A: There is no denying that the death of a person so young—which feels like such a subversion of the natural order—brings a terrible additional burden to those who grieve. Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons noted that "When a sibling or friend near the child's own age dies, it often feels more tragic and wasteful to the adults, and bewildering to the child, because such things are not 'supposed' to happen."13 In addition to all of the same comforts described for more "ordinary" bereavements, children in these situations need to be particularly reassured that they themselves are not at any increased risk as a result of the tragedy. At the same time, it would not be inappropriate to underline the ways in which they can ensure their own safety (seat belts, caution, etc.). If a child seems especially affected by a tragic death, professional counseling is an option worth investigating.
Although nonreligious parents will not have access to religious comforts in these situations, they do have one notable advantage: They are freed from the unenviable task of explaining how an all-good and all-powerful god can allow such things to happen.
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