DD and I made cakes earlier. We’d weighed out all the ingredients and were mixing them together when she paused, looked at me with a serious expression and asked The Question. The one we’ve been waiting for her to ask while fervently hoping she wouldn’t, not yet. The one about death.
DH and I knew this was going to come up at some point so we’d planned our approach. We’ve always felt that if a child is old enough to ask a question then they’re old enough to get a truthful answer, albeit somewhat simplified (this tactic was challenged recently when DD asked what a universe is. I struggled with that one a bit!). We had decided that we would explain death in a calm, factual manner, emphasising that it’s completely normal and nothing frightening. To start with it went something like this:
DD: Mummy, what does dying mean?
Me: (deep breath) Dying is what happens when your body stops working, stops breathing, and the the part of you that is you disappears.
DD: Oh. Did your Nana die?
Me: (relieved this is going so well) Yes, a long time ago.
DD: Did she know she died?
I explained in a bit more detail, making sure to reassure her that dying doesn’t hurt (yeah I know, but she’s not quite 4) and that it’s just your body stopping.
DD: So dead people can’t move or talk or breathe?
Me: No, the bit that’s you inside your body isn’t there any more so the body can’t do any of those things.
DD: (indignantly) But dead people can talk, they talk with their hands!
At this point I took a moment to explain the difference between dead and deaf… Then DD asked if DH and I would die one day and I said yes but not until we were very old. After a moment’s thought she asked if she was going to die and when I said yes (but again, not until she’s very old) she burst into tears wailing “I don’t want to die!”.
This quickly passed though as soon she had another question – what happens to dead bodies? I took another deep breath and explained about coffins, funerals (all the person’s friends and family have a little party and tell stories about what the person was like) and burial. She even asked whether the body stayed in the ground forever so I briefly touched on the idea that the body would become part of the soil and help feed plants and insects. She quite liked this idea and decided it was time to resume our baking.
All the way through this conversation I kept thinking how much easier it would be (for both of us!) if I could tell her that when people die they go to heaven. But although my family are Christian DH and I are both atheists. The idea of heaven is a wonderfully comforting one but for us to tell her that it’s true would be hypocritical, despite part of me wishing that I could.
When DD gets round to asking what happens to the bit inside your body that is you, we’ll respond the way we do with all things relating to religion and atheism. We’ll tell her that different people believe different things, explain what the different beliefs are and let her make up her own mind as to what she thinks is true. We’ll do the same with DS when he’s old enough.
But for now DD seems satisfied with the answers I gave (although I feel like I’ve been put through the wringer!) and doesn’t appear to be worrying. I guess that’s the most important thing.