The Ethical Dilemma: Explaining Death

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Explaining Death to Young Children: My husband’s mother recently passed away and we’ve been looking for ways to talk to our kids (ages 3 and 4) about her death without including heaven or hell. However, we like the idea of her memory and spirit (or a more humanist word) living on and her looking out for the kids, like a guardian angel, but again more humanist and less religious. I’m new to humanism and still trying to find the right words and balance.

–Where Did Grandma Go?

Dear Where,

Did you ever see the movie The Invention of Lying? In a world where everyone was completely honest all the time because they were incapable of anything else, Ricky Gervais’s character, sitting with his terrified dying mother, finds within himself the unprecedented ability to tell her stories about a man in the sky that, while not true, comfort her in her last moments. And then one thing leads to another….

If you haven’t been feeding your children tall tales, there’s no reason to begin now. It’s likely you feel a need for something beyond strict reality more than your kids do. I absolutely believe people live on after their deaths—in the lives and memories of those they touched, directly and indirectly, when they were with us. Every day I experience my mom’s opinions and comments (and criticisms!), as well as her favorite songs and books and movies—even though she’s been gone for years. I think about how she would view current events and the progress of her grandchildren, and I know those thoughts affect my real-time feelings, views and actions.

You can keep deceased loved ones present by invoking their memory: frequently quote things they said, look at photos, recount stories of their life, discuss their ideas and how they might react to today’s developments. You can tell your kids that Grandma would be so proud of their accomplishments, or disappointed with their bad behavior, or would have loved to attend their kindergarten graduation. No need to invent a guardian angel or any other form of lying, no matter how benevolent it may seem.

Readers, how do you explain death to young children (or adults) without falling back on religious or supernatural memes?