Teaching a Child About Death

My dad used to take naps next to my daughter on the bed and I remember seeing them in there—my father with his oxygen machine and my daughter curled up next to him—and it was all so dreamy and loving and cute. And so, it was a big deal when he died. And my daughter had questions.

When she asked “What happens after we die?” I said, “To be honest, darling—we decompose.” And she wanted to know what that meant. A bird had died in our backyard and so we watched how it disappeared a little bit every day. When I tell this story to people, they look at me horrified. Like I was forcing some horrifying truth onto a little kid too small to understand it. But actually, she got it just fine, possibly because I didn’t only say that. I said two more things. “When you die, your body decomposes,” I said. “It breaks down into all these teeny parts you can’t even see—like dirt or air even. And then those particles become part of something else.” And my daughter said, “Like what?” And I said, “Well, like a flower or air or grass or dirt or even another person.” And she said, “Well, I want to be another person!” And I said, “Yes, I understand. But even if some of your molecules became part of another person, it wouldn’t be you. Because You are You and when You are gone, there will never ever be another You in this world. You are so special and unique that this world will only ever make one of You. With You they broke the mold, so that’s it! Only You. Right here, right now.”

And she seemed to kind of get that. In fact, it made her feel special.

And then I told her a second thing: that her grandfather did live on after he died, inside of the people who were remembering him. And in the ways he influenced those people, even when they weren’t thinking of him. Like, how Grandpa just loved orange sherbet. Now, because of that, we eat orange sherbet too and we remember him when we do it. Or even things that we might not think about him while we do, like when we watch some basketball on TV. We might do that because of Grandpa who loved to watch basketball on TV. Because of him, we are different. In probably thousands or even millions of ways. And that difference is what makes him live after he dies.

And she really got that.

Only one problem: Her friends at school were asking her if her grandfather was up in heaven. And she was thrown, because to say “no” sounded bad and to say “yes” wasn’t what I had told her. One day we were walking home from the park with one of her friends, and the friend said, “Did you see your grandfather’s spirit fly up to heaven when he died?” And my daughter looked at me and said, “Did it?” And I said, “No, we don’t believe in things like that.” And my daughter parroted me, “Yeah, we don’t believe in that.” And for a second she looked confident repeating me, and then her face crinkled up and she frowned and directed her eyes downward.


My daughter would often start conversations with me by saying, “So, we believe that …” And frankly I hated the whole word “believe” and I also hated that she was just taking what I said as absolute truth, because in the perfect world of my head, she wouldn’t be indoctrinated with anything. She would come up with her own answers, and she would never say things like, “We believe” or “We don’t believe.” But then I got more seasoned as a mother and realized that basically that’s what we do all the time as parents, no matter what we “believe.” Our job is to socialize our kids, and they have evolved to look to us for answers. Not providing those answers is wrong.

I got a little more comfortable saying things about what we “believe.” Like, we believe it is good to take the garbage out. Honestly, it seems silly now that I write it. But that’s how I got comfortable with that word. We believe in treating people nicely. We believe you shouldn’t tell people lies. We believe that you should do your homework. That kind of believe.


Julia Sweeney describes how she taught her daughter about death after her grandfather died.

Folksonomies: parenting atheism

/food and drink/desserts and baking (0.491218)
/family and parenting/children (0.483665)
/religion and spirituality/atheism and agnosticism (0.449957)

daughter (0.997452 (positive:0.582257)), orange sherbet (0.925232 (positive:0.417539)), Death Julia Sweeney (0.897049 (negative:-0.408580)), things (0.776647 (negative:-0.385238)), big deal (0.748383 (neutral:0.000000)), darling—we decompose. (0.737608 (negative:-0.268684)), oxygen machine (0.735885 (positive:0.914196)), people (0.733204 (positive:0.334653)), there—my father (0.731796 (positive:0.914196)), grandfather (0.731591 (negative:-0.367200)), teeny parts (0.718917 (negative:-0.745619)), horrifying truth (0.706508 (negative:-0.694849)), little bit (0.693958 (negative:-0.805008)), see—like dirt (0.692183 (negative:-0.745619)), little kid (0.691090 (negative:-0.694849)), probably thousands (0.679618 (negative:-0.597642)), n’t thinking (0.678735 (neutral:0.000000)), absolute truth (0.651283 (negative:-0.296865)), perfect world (0.649558 (neutral:0.000000)), believe (0.569484 (positive:0.416057)), answers (0.551165 (negative:-0.247383)), Grandpa (0.550665 (positive:0.480656)), air (0.529805 (negative:-0.745619)), kind (0.527927 (positive:0.338111)), ways (0.523628 (negative:-0.597642)), word (0.521052 (positive:0.352270)), person (0.513971 (negative:-0.232867)), friends (0.507049 (neutral:0.000000)), basketball (0.506751 (positive:0.441066)), TV. (0.506723 (positive:0.441066))

Grandpa:Person (0.758413 (positive:0.268956)), Julia Sweeney:Person (0.593056 (negative:-0.408580)), there—my:City (0.519162 (positive:0.914196)), basketball:Sport (0.510964 (positive:0.441066)), One day:Quantity (0.510964 (neutral:0.000000))

Debut singles (0.958720): dbpedia
2005 singles (0.890262): dbpedia
Debut albums (0.769644): dbpedia
Family (0.624190): dbpedia | freebase
2008 singles (0.599761): dbpedia
Decomposition (0.457528): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
2003 singles (0.456555): dbpedia
Grandparent (0.454528): dbpedia | freebase

 Navigating Around the Dinner Table
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book Chapter:  Sweeney, Julia (2007-04-25), Navigating Around the Dinner Table, Retrieved on 2012-03-28
Folksonomies: parenting atheism