The Frog Pyjamas

Two mums, one blog, two takes on parenting

Comfort without religion: teaching my son about death


“There are dead people under these stones,” remarks the Heir, hopping merrily from one gravestone onto another. “Do you think the big ones have really fat people underneath them?”

Although we are trying not to laugh, my husband O. and I are somewhat taken aback – not by the nature of the comment (a friend shared her knowledge on this subject with him at half term) but by the apparent indifference with which it was delivered. Death has been a popular topic with my eldest son ever since the sad demise of his granny’s cat a couple of years ago, but up until now his conversations about it have been laced with some anxiety.

When Daisy, said much-loved cat, was put down, I found myself in something of a quandary. I wanted the Heir to understand about death, and that it is final (hence my dislike of euphemisms such as “falling asleep”, “passing” and “lost”) but he is a sensitive little soul and I did not want him to become overly frightened.

So, very matter-of-factly, I explained to him that next time we went round, Daisy would not be there. I was straight forward and practical, telling him that she had been very old, her heart had stopped beating and she had died. (Now wasn’t the time to go into the vet’s role in her death.) I said that although her body had remained, the part of her that was her character and feelings etc was no longer there. I answered his questions as best I could – that he already had some understanding of how the body works was very useful – and was honest when I didn’t know the answers. I skirted round certain areas, telling him a firm “no” in response to “can I see Daisy dead?” but not elaborating (thankfully he hasn’t asked) about the various methods of corpse disposal. It wasn’t until the aforementioned half-term chat with his friend that he became enlightened about burial and I have yet to mention the alternatives…

Once he had an (albeit childishly innocent) understanding of the concept of death, I did my best to “normalise” the subject. I drew his attention to occasional road-kill when we were out in the car, in an interested rather than a ghoulish way. I let him look at and touch dead rodents intermittently brought in by our cat, and he saw that these things held no fear for me. When going round the supermarket I taught him that meat comes from animals. He listened attentively and I thought I was doing a great job until he said “pork comes from pigs, beef comes from cows… what animal does broccoli come from?”

Inevitably, we came round to the fact that people as well as animals die. It began with his interest in genealogy. Once he learned that Granny and Grandad were Mummy’s mummy and daddy, and that his other granny was Daddy’s mummy, his logical mind brought him to ask about “Daddy’s Daddy.” I told him that Daddy’s Daddy had died several years ago, that he was a wonderful man who would have loved the Heir and the Spare very much. As it was purely abstract he was very accepting and has had some lovely chats with O. about what “Daddy’s Daddy” was like. (He has refused point blank to use any other name.)

What I failed to take into account was what he would then do with this information and the effect it could have on other people. One Sunday lunch, as we sat round the dining table with O’s mother, the Heir suddenly announced “Daddy’s Daddy is dead.” Luckily my mother-in-law is made of strong stuff and where a lesser woman might have crumbled, she remained calm. I felt terrible – but how can you teach tact to a four year old?

When the Heir asked me outright “what happens to you when you are dead?” I had to think very carefully before answering. With the exception of Father Christmas (I disagree with Richard Dawkins that it is harmful for children to believe in this particular fairy tale) and the occasional white lie (“I have absolutely no idea who ate all your chocolate buttons…”) I generally prefer that my children be told the truth. They are very logical and in my experience so far fabrication or even sugar-coating ultimately leads to confusion and uncomfortable situations. So I told him honestly: nobody really knows, but lots of people have various theories about it.

Religion can help enormously when it comes to offering comfort on the subject of death. However, although respectful of other people’s faith (as long as they don’t use it as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour or try to force it down my throat), I fall on the atheist side of agnostic, and am therefore unable to find or offer solace in the form of any definitive god, heaven, afterlife, reincarnation or whatever. I do not necessarily either want or expect my sons to grow up with the same (lack of) beliefs as me, but I want them to be well educated about all scientific theories as well as religions so they can then make an informed choice.

I left the subject of gods and religion largely out of our early conversations about death, but once the Heir started school I was no longer able to filter what information he received. Recently, we were driving home from school and I asked whether he had heard the thunderstorm that afternoon. He had indeed: “Mrs X [a teacher] told us thunder is God getting out of bed”. I am sure it was just a harmless throwaway comment, offered to comfort a child frightened by the storm, but nonetheless I was surprised. As far as I am aware his fairly multi-cultural school is non-denominational, although they do put on a nativity play every Christmas.

“How does she know it was God?” I enquired. “Maybe it was Father Christmas getting out of bed?” The Heir fixed me with a steely gaze, leaving no doubt as to his opinion of me: “Father Christmas lives in the North Pole, Mummy,” he said. “We wouldn’t hear him getting out of bed.”

It is hard to know where and how to draw the line. I want to protect my boys from some of the harsh realities of life for as long as I can, but I do not want them to be brainwashed. If I felt able to placate them with tales of comfy cloud beds, meeting up with dead friends under the watchful eye of a nice chap with a long white beard then perhaps I would, but I cannot pretend to believe something when I don’t. Ultimately, he will find out soon enough that Father Christmas isn’t real (I was disillusioned at an early age by a small friend telling me, apropos Christmas stockings: “I don’t believe in Father Christmas, but I do believe in mums and dads”) and when the time comes he will be sad but he will recover. If, however, I feed him comfort-blanket scraps of faith that I don’t believe in myself, his distress when he becomes disenchanted will be a thousand fold.

I was forewarned about so many aspects of parenting, such as teething, sleepless nights, potty training, learning to read and write, but this was something for which I was completely unprepared. For us, the whole subject is very much a work in progress – the Heir is still only five years old – but I hope I have done a good job so far. As with so many things regarding my firstborn, it assumed such significance: I had a perfectly innocent canvas to work with and I was desperate to do the right thing, seeing my responsibility as educating but not indoctrinating.

We are making headway – his grave-hopping comments prove that somewhere along the way he has started to feel more relaxed about the whole subject. Perhaps he has taken lessons from the Spare, who either just isn’t as sensitive or is benefitting from second child-itis, fearlessly absorbing crumbs of information destined for elsewhere. The other day I went up to kiss him goodnight and found him out of bed, lying on the floor. “What on earth are you doing?” I asked him. He giggled naughtily: “I am just pretending to be dead.”

2 thoughts on “Comfort without religion: teaching my son about death

  1. You seem to be treading a very similar path to me on this matter and you have given me a couple of ideas re normalising death – road kill, prezzies from the cat. This is a great post that resonates very strongly with my own experiences. Thank you.

  2. A really interesting post, thank you for writing. My daughter is still too young for this to be a concern but this is one of the areas my partner and I have already discussed about how we tackle (along with boy/girl parts!). Like you, I believe that matter-of-fact honesty is the best way forward. From my own experience, I didn’t grow up with a religious upbringing (other than at school) but I was clearly told only about heaven – a family joke is that one day my Mum said “it looks like the heavens are going to open” and, at the tender age of 4 I said [worried] “does that mean all the dead bodies are going to fall out?”. Sadly, I went on to lose my Dad at the age of 8 and it took me many years to understand the finality of the situation. I vividly remember being fairly excited at the funeral because everyone I’d ever met was staying at the house…Dad had been in the hospital many times before…why was this any different? I think that a less wooly explanation earlier on might have aided my understanding and I hope to be able to provide a no drama explanation on this and other difficult topics to my little girl.

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