Talking about death to children is not an easy thing to do - far harder than teaching the facts of life! But how do you approach it when you are not sure of your own answers? I have tried to put together the worries and questions my children had, and how my husband and I, as agnostics, approached the answers.
My children were between the ages of four and six when the burst of questions came, triggered in part by having seen two squashed frogs in the middle of the road. We gave answers that we felt were appropriate for their age, loosely based on a foundation of religious belief, while not including any particular religious doctrine. We mostly made it up as we went along, our aim being to reassure any fears, but also to leave the door open to different beliefs as they get older.
What happens after you die?
I knew that I couldn't possibly raise them with the idea that there was nothing after you die. For me, the idea that you would cease to exist was too frightening a concept to give a young child. It makes for a much more gentle introduction to death to say that it isn't exactly the end, just the beginning of another state. Who is to say that's not the truth?
We decided to introduce heaven rather than reincarnation, having both come from Catholic backgrounds. My husband and I decided to paint a very traditional view of heaven, as a beautiful and magical place that was accepting of all beings - human, animal, insect. Just beware of making it sound too enticing, as my children started getting the idea that they really wanted to go to heaven right now! I explained to them that it was a place that you can't visit - once you are there you have to stay. (This message got a little confused when they thought they had already been to heaven; it transpired they had confused a glimpse of the afterlife with a lovely holiday in Devon!)
Does your body go to heaven?
The differences between my children became very evident during our conversations about death. My son took everything at face value, and was entirely satisfied by my answers. My daughter, on the other hand, would mull over everything I said, and kept coming up with some new questions to ask:
"Did the frogs go to heaven?"
"Yes, of course," I replied.
"But they were on the road. How did they go to heaven?"
So we introduced the idea of a life force, or a soul, which exists beyond their body. However, this answer actually ended up scaring our daughter:
"But I want my body!"
We told her that you get a new body in heaven, but she was determined that she would feel different as it wouldn't be her original body. I tried all sorts of approaches to help with this: your body changes all the time, but you don't notice it (new skin cells, hair growth), you're already growing all the time, becoming a grown-up and you don't mind that. But nothing helped. This went on for weeks and months, especially at bed-time. Eventually we realised that what she was afraid of was the fact her normal body would be left alone on earth. She asked me if I would be in the same grave (or, to use her word, gravy) as her. I said, "Yes, of course," and she was completely reassured by that, and didn't mention it again!
I'm worried heaven doesn't really exist
This was something that my son asked. He is much less ready to believe in things that he doesn't see, he questioned the existence of Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy from a very young age, so this was another on his list.
In this area (unlike for Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy!) I decided to be fairly honest early on. I told them that in fact no one has been to heaven and back again, because it's not a place you visit, so it isn't something that anyone has seen. However, different people believe different things about what happens when you die (I mentioned reincarnation - they weren't convinced!) and that it's a question of what you feel not what you know. They both seemed to be happy with that answer - one because he thought there probably wasn't, but it didn't bother him, and the other because she felt there was, which she found reassuring.
I don't want to go to heaven without you
This one was a heartbreaker. Another from my daughter. I made it simple and said that I would be there waiting for her, to which she then replied, "I don't want you to go to heaven before me." This then became the idea that upset her a lot, which of course is a common fear for children. We told her that we had to go a bit before her to get her room in heaven ready for her. She was still troubled by it, and in the end we just told her that we would only go when she was happy for us to go and get her room ready when we are all very, very old. It was reassuring enough, and hopefully by the time it becomes an issue we really will be very old!
Are there baddies in heaven?
This is the problem when you don't want to introduce an idea of hell! Of course I said "no" but then my son asked "but where do the baddies go when they die? Do they go to a baddie heaven which isn't nice?" I found it incredible that they had made up hell all by themselves! We were very firm that we were not going to introduce any concept of hell, as it just creates fear and guilt. I told him no, there is not a baddy heaven. What happens is that when the baddies die they are able to realise that what they did on earth was bad and so they become good.
A little note on prayer
My daughter was upset when my parents' dog Aramis died, and told me that she was going to miss him, and wished she could tell him that she missed him. I've also talked about my grandmother, and she said how she wished she could have met her. I therefore brought in the idea of prayer - I told her that you can say a prayer to those who have died, and tell them all that you want to. I also told them it was a good time to say thank you for all the good things that have happened in the day. I think regardless of any religious belief, it's a good opportunity for reflection, and is reassuring to feel you still have a link to people (or pets!) that you miss. I have over-heard my daughter on many occasions saying her prayers by herself:
"Good-night Grannie, good-night Aramis, good-night squashed frogs..."
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A longer version of this article was published on Isabelle's blog