A letter to my son about death

Sad BoyTo my dear son,

I’m sorry that you’re feeling scared about dying. I’m glad that I was able to make you feel a bit happier, but I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.

It’s not as if you have anything to worry about – you’re a perfectly healthy four-year-old, so your expected remaining lifetime is an absolute eternity from that point of view. But you’ve realised that everyone dies, which means you’ll die eventually, and you’re having a hard time coming to terms with it. I sympathise – I remember how scary I used to find the prospect of death at that age. But your fears put me in a difficult position.

It would be nice to be able to tell you that we all die, but we live on in other people’s memories, and that you’ll get used to the idea. That would be the most honest expression of what I believe, but I have a sneaking suspicion that while you may come to agree with my view in time, it wouldn’t do much to calm your current fears. I’m not even very happy with my eventual compromise of saying that no one knows what happens when we die, and that it’s only the not knowing that makes it seem scary. I wish I could say more.

I wish I could reach into the Big Book of Lies for Children and start feeding you comforting platitudes about how you’ll go to heaven, it’ll be like waking up and going home, or even the not-entirely-untrue “you’ll go to the same place as all the people you love”. It wouldn’t be an honest reflection of my beliefs, it would just make you feel better. My intellectual honesty starts to fray at the point where you’re feeling hurt or upset, but it doesn’t vanish entirely.

Heaven 2Yes, I want to be completely honest with you. Yes, I think death is the final, absolute end for all of us. But when you’re in a state of existential angst, I’m neither dogmatic enough nor hard-nosed enough to say so. It wouldn’t make you feel any less worried, and that’s what matters to me above all. So I fudged my answer a bit, and deliberately held some possibilities open. If you’re feeling generous, you could say I was tailoring my answer to the audience.

I’m not going to make a habit of this. It’s an emergency response reserved for the times when you really need to be comforted, and I’ll make sure to explain properly when you’re old enough to understand. I don’t want to lie to you, but nor can I stand by and let you be consumed by a fear that’s clearly been dominating your thoughts recently.

So I’m sorry I couldn’t give you an answer that would completely satisfy you, and I’m sorry that I didn’t give you a full, honest explanation of what I think. I hope if you read this one day, you’ll understand my reasons, and that you’ll manage to forgive me.


Images courtesy of stay4while and maeva, used with permission

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

9 responses to “A letter to my son about death”

  1. DUH'Merica says :

    Great post, well done. I think the fear of death and the unknown truly cloud the ability of people to reason. I’m ok with dying, being cremated and having my ashes sprinkled into the ocean. And that’s it for me. I have children and wonder how I will explain death to them, not easy to do at all.

  2. sam says :

    Reblogged this on According to Sam and commented:
    I have chosen to follow this blog some time ago but at some point I did not feel that the way the owner expressed his opinions on religion were right up my street anymore so I stopped reading it. Although not an atheist myself, I would not dare to claim any belonging to a certain category in respect of spiritual life so his atheism did not bother me but rather a certain stress put on pointing out the failings in Christian doctrine, Bible or Christian ethics.
    It took this text to put myself back in my place and remember that I have no right to judge anyone by the way they look or the way they express themselves. We are all human and more complex than we can ever comprehend so let us enjoy each other presence for as long as we can afford.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Thanks, I think. 😀

      I’m sorry if you tend to find my writing unappealing these days – I don’t mind saying that I get a lot more pleasure from this sort of post than complaining about this or that theological claim, but I try to keep it varied and it depends on what inspires me, or in this case what’s happening in my life.

  3. Jules says :

    Totally understand where you are coming from on this; as a Christian whose faith lately is barely as big as a mushroom seed at times, I have found it trickier than I’d imagined to answer questions from the little one. ‘Indoctrinating’ her (as I feel it it, sometimes) into my faith has felt far less smooth and uncontroversial than I expected it to be. I guess this latter does make one rethink about issues long accepted.

  4. S.U. says :

    A good post, it reminded me of a post I did a few weeks ago – discussing discussing death with children in palliative care (see: http://bornagainagnostoc.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-arrogance-of-pity.html).

    As I state: ‘children are far more resilient than we give them credit for and although at the time a parent’s illness and death can be bewildering, in later life they can make far more sense of the death if they haven’t been excluded and protected from the reality. Such nonsense as ‘Daddy’s gone to live with the angels’ isn’t helpful either, as a child is left wondering why Daddy chose to leave him or her and go and live elsewhere. The finality of death is best told how it is – the child will make his or her own sense of that in their own way. Lying to make things easier for adults just fucks with children’s minds.’

    Incidentally, one thing I noticed, working in cancer and end of life care (which I’ve done for the past 10 years) is that people with a devout (and particularly conservative) faith (regardless of the actual religion) are more likely to go for life extending treatment that will compromise their quality of life. However I have since come across empirical research that backs up my observation. Obviously not all believers opt for life extending treatment, but there is a greater propensity for the devout to do so. I find this peculiar – you’d think they’d be itching to shed this mortal coil, but no, many want to hang on to life, even when quantity is compromised by quality! (see: http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/25/5/555.short).

  5. theagnosticswife says :

    My sons just lost their nana. She suffered in her last month, we all have, but my husband and I were honest with them from the beginning. They know that some people believe that when you die you go to a place called heaven and they know that their daddy and I do not believe this. That we think when you die you are gone and memories remain. It’s true children are quick to adapt and can understand and handle much more than we realize. While they are sad they are handling it quite well. While Ives nervous at first not to sugar coat things it really has been the best decision.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I don’t know how it might have gone with a different approach, and there’s the additional complication of trying to steer a course that my wife and I can agree on. Even without that, I feel that I would probably have tried to sweeten the pill a bit, because my son’s a worrier, and he really was very upset by the thought that he’d die one day.

      Maybe that’s wrong. I don’t claim to be a great parent, but I try my best.

      • theagnosticswife says :

        No, I don’t think it’s wrong how you handled it at all. You know your son best and I believe my kids are a few years older than your little guy.

        If I remember correctly, they went through a worrying stage about death too. Parenting is hard, there is no book that tells us what to do when. You do the best you can. We all do. 😊

  6. Al from Hastings says :

    A very interesting article. Although you call yourself an agnostic, you are clearly an atheist, given that you admit that you are not comfortable with “saying that no one knows what happens when we die”. You feel the need to be ‘honest’ and tell your son that death is the end. In other words, total oblivion; total non-existence. You make clear that the communication of any other position would be tantamount to lying to your child, hence your concern not to “reach into the Big Book of Lies for Children”.

    Your approach indicates to me that you regard truth and honesty as objectively valid values. Unfortunately this position does not cohere with the naturalistic view of reality espoused by atheists. I am not at all suggesting that atheists should not value truth and honesty, but rather that the “espousing of objectively valid values” is not consistent with the way the philosophy of naturalism works. In fact, such a position is a tacit acknowledgment of the truth of a completely different world view.

    If we really are nothing more than complex bundles of molecules put together by natural selection, without any intelligent guidance or purpose, then it follows that reason and morality are merely emergent properties, which have come into being for the purpose of aiding survival. The idea of truth itself is one such property. As is the idea of honesty. They are entirely subjective, and do not necessarily reflect reality. In fact, within such a world view we would not have any idea what reality really was, because what goes on in the human brain is merely a means to the end of the survival of the organism and not a reflection of how reality necessarily really works. Lies are useful and often ‘work’, as we know, so they would qualify as aids to survival.

    So, frankly, if the philosophy of naturalism is true, and there is no spiritual reality above the dimensions of the material universe, then really it does not matter what people believe about death. All ideas and moral values are simply tools to aid survival. The idea that “death is the end” is no more true than “when we die we go to heaven”. But your article suggests that there actually are objectively valid values. Reason tells us that such values cannot exist within the philosophy of naturalism. So you are actually tacitly bearing witness to a world view in which there is a dimension of reality above the natural – a world view in which it is probably true that death is not the end.

    Perhaps you need to be a lot more honest with your son concerning the implications of your world view. Perhaps you need to say that because we are just ultimately meaningless bundles of molecules, then neither honesty nor truth matter anyway. That would be far more consistent and rational.

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