Death and Children

Question from Francesca:
What do atheists tell their children when the children show fear of dying?

Answer by SmartLX:
Much the same as believers, I’d say.

I’d say this because the idea of an afterlife does little to mitigate the fear of death, and in fact appears to exacerbate it. I can claim this empirically, because studies have found that fear of death is positively correlated with religiosity in multiple countries and religions, and anecdotally, because stories of people’s lasting fear of Hell are all over the place. Even if you’re a believer, to comfort a child using your religion you have to leave out parts of the doctrine your religion would consider essential and focus only on Heaven, and you’ll still probably instill lifelong fears.

So once religious parents try the Heaven thing and find later that their children are still afraid, they have to continue to comfort the kids in other, secular terms, which is what atheists do from the outset. There are plenty of approaches to this, including but not limited to the following:

– Emphasise that death is a long, LONG way off for children, and those who love them will help them to live for as long as possible.
– Say that whatever suffering and stress there is in this life stop at death, and the deceased no longer have the same pains or cares.
– Honour those who have died, from close relatives to long-gone war heroes to household pets, to show that those who die are not forgotten and stay with us in real ways.
– Distract, distract, distract. Provide comforts not related to death, like hugs and hot chocolate, and activities and structure to get life started again. It won’t take the problems away, but it will give the kids a chance to work through the issues in their own time without getting too emotionally involved.

The fact of death is a bitter pill for everyone to swallow, and some are younger than others when it first touches their lives. Religion does not make it easier in the long run, it simply allows an amount of temporary denial. It’s not easy for anyone.

3 thoughts on “Death and Children”

  1. I think death is one of the major selling points of many religions. Or more specifically eternal life. While the event of dying wills care mostly anybody (as it should), the comfort of an eternal soul or an afterlife seems like a lovely fairy tale to me. I wish I believed in it! Really, I do.


    To me, as opposed to SmartLX, one of the things I hate hearing people say the most is, “Now they don’t have to be in pain, or suffer anymore.” In my eyes, life is all we have. Be it painful, pleasing, a struggle, torture, or what have you. I will cling to this life as long as I can, because once it is over, it is over. Some might argue that *nothing* is better than pain or suffering. But I think nothing is terrifying. Not in itself, because once you are dead, you can’t be scared of course. But the thought of never being able to think, see, hear, feel, smell, taste, smile, cry, or anything else ever again. The thought of no longer existing…it’s just so sad. I don’t believe in euthenasia except for extreme cases. I think voluntary euthenasia (AKA suicide) is BS 99% of the time. Especially if the person is religious and they DO believe that death is NOT the end. Because guess what, it is. Ending your life, thinking there is life after that is horrid. It disgusts me.

    Anyways, onto children. My family has always been straight up. Death exists, stupid decisions, accidents, or completely uncontrollable tragedies can lead to death. It is sad, and it is harsh, but it is reality. Death isn’t what is important though, life is. Living life as you please and finding a way to be happy is what is important (as long as you aren’t harming others, I add).

    I don’t think about, contemplate, or have nightmares of my own death. I’m focused on living. Death is eventual, but I’m not going to plan for it. Focusing on it isn’t necessary IMO. I’ll pass the same message onto my children some day.

    1. I think it’s sad that atheists have to lie to their children when asked about death. ”Emphasise that death is a long, LONG way off for children, and those who love them will help them to live for as long as possible.” Please don’t tell that to your children. How do you know that they will live a long, Long time from now? You don’t know when their time is up. Many children die at a young age. What can you do to help them live longer? Nothing whatsoever. ”Say that whatever suffering and stress there is in this life stop at death, and the deceased no longer have the same pains or cares.” IF they are a christian, that would be true.

      1. Firstly, the “how do you know” question is rich coming from a Christian. I wouldn’t say that a long life is guaranteed, but rather that barring tragedies a person is expected to live for many decades – which for most children is an unfathomably long time.

        Why do many children die at a young age, in your area and around the world? They have accidents, or they get sick, or they are victimised by horrible people, or they starve or die of thirst. A child’s family and community, while unable to absolutely prevent any of these, can do much to protect the child from them: feeding, washing, immunising, supervising, disciplining and so on. It’s the most basic part of raising children: looking after their needs and keeping them out of danger at least until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. If you really don’t know what people can do to help children live longer, consider how long they’d last with no support at all.

        If Christianity is true, the suffering and stress might only be beginning at the point of death, because there are so many ways they might end up in Hell or at least purgatory. Two main categories: they could die with various unconfessed sins, or simply be brought up in the wrong denomination and have prepared for the afterlife in the wrong manner. This scares children every bit as much as death itself, and it’s the reason you would have to leave out so much crucial stuff for an afterlife to be any comfort to them.

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