My 4 years old daughter fears death. How can I explain it from an atheist point of view?

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Discussion by: smalvarmouco

Any advice for me? My little daughter fears death. She's worrying about the day her mam and dad will die. She has constant nightmares.

Do you know about a book we could read with her, for example before she goes to bed?

We live in Spain. If you knew about a spanish edition, that would be perfect.

Otherwise, how can I explain death a way she can understand it and stop worrying about it?

Thanks.

Samuel

42 COMMENTS

  1. Have you had a person or a pet die in the family recently? If not, my guess would be that she’s more afraid of being separated from you than anything, and imagines herself alone and having to fend for herself, without someone to care for her.

    You might just try telling her that you’ll be there for her for a very long time, that you both are healthy, that you take care of yourselves, and that doctors also help take very good care of people, which makes people live for a long time. Tell her that she’ll always be safe and cared for, no matter what. Maybe talk to her about all the people she has in her life who care about her.

    Perhaps Google something along the lines of “fear of death in children” too, because it’s probably a fairly common problem.

    I wish I could suggest a book to help you, but nothing comes to mind, unfortunately.

  2. I think the best thing is to show her you’re not afraid of death yourself. She may also be afraid of being left alone when you go, but there is every chance that by the time you do she’ll be grown up and have children of her own. She’ll also have a kaleidoscope of indelible happy memories of her parents to console her as well.

    And life as a 4 year old is a huge adventure too full of wonders to look forward to to be worrying about the inevitable end.

  3. At this age, I think it is important to address the issues that she currently has about death without getting too complex. Answer questions as they arise. Chances are she is concerned about your death and her being left alone (especially if you are an older parent.) At four, I realized my parents were older and this was a concern to me. I listened to Hansel and Gretal frequently. I was also thankful for being a female because that meant I would not have to go to war. (Vietnam broke out when I was four.) I also feared skeletons because I knew one was inside of me. I think this reaction was the result of religion and culture focusing on death and decay as a bad, undesirable thing. Roadkill reinforced this idea. I had already been to a few funerals and knew what death meant – permanently gone. Children are very egocentric at this age and see this as directly an issue affecting them – this is probably part of the issue. She may need to be reassured that someone will look after her if something would happen and that your death or her death is a really really long time away.

  4. Tell you child that you hate the idea of living forever, and that it gives you nightmares.

    This is an idea I got from one of the discworld books which I read as an adult, but may work on a 4 year old.

    Someone wanted to live forever. His wish was granted, So he had to start at the big-bang, and had to hang around for about 14 billion years before anything interesting happened. Imagine being alone for such a long time. The the whole of the history of earth went by in a flash, then followed by trillions of years just watching the stars wink out of existence. then trillions more years just looking at the cold and dark. Be careful what you wish for.

    • In reply to #5 by old-toy-boy:

      Tell you child that you hate the idea of living forever, and that it gives you nightmares.

      This is an idea I got from one of the discworld books which I read as an adult, but may work on a 4 year old.

      Someone wanted to live forever. His wish was granted, So he had to start at the big-bang, and had…

      In concept, how is this all that much different from threatening eternity in hell? You haven’t even offered the consolation of heaven.

      • In reply to #19 by whiteraven:

        In concept, how is this all that much different from threatening eternity in hell? You haven’t even offered the consolation of heaven.

        Sorry, I did not make myself clear. The point was dying is better than living forever, given the choice I prefer to die than living forever. The funny bit is that the “forever” means starting from the big bang. … (maybe ironic rather than funny)

  5. Your problem is your attempt to condition your daughter with a specific ideology, viz. atheism. She has already imbibed your conviction that death=annihilation, and that’s why she’s freaked out. Back off: admit that you DON’T KNOW what happens when people die. Indeed, you haven’t the faintest clue what it means to be alive! Your honesty will help her more than anything else you have available.

    • In reply to #6 by DhyanVijen:

      Your problem is your attempt to condition your daughter with a specific ideology, viz. atheism. She has already imbibed your conviction that death=annihilation, and that’s why she’s freaked out. Back off: admit that you DON’T KNOW what happens when people die. Indeed, you haven’t the faintest clue w…
      No. In fact we’ve never talked about any kind of ideology. We simply don’t go to church on Sunday. Her six years old brother and her went once to a mass (the baptism of a cousin), and they lived it as an interesting show. But I didn’t criticise or comment it further.
      In fact, I think the ideas she has come basically from school, TV and books. It’s incredible how death is present in cartoons for example. I probably agree with other people here that comment that she’s afraid of losing her parents because we’re older.
      At school she “studied” actually the different steps os life: baby, child, teenager, adult, older. They didn’t talk too much about death but she understood perfectly that this is what comes after. As her parents are already adults, she feels we are close to our own death… But anyway, thank you very much for your answer!

  6. What worked for me was to just make sure my child knew death was something in the very far future. I said something like, “Look at at how old grandpa is, you’ll be a grown up when I’m that old, and I’ll still be alive for many more years after that, just like grandpa.”

    Don’t compare death to sleep; children sleep every night.

  7. You can tell here that everybody are going to die. The on thing you can’t chang in your live is that you are going to die. Then you tell here that she must think what she is going to do in between. Live is what you make of it so make it something to be proud of. That your parents are going to die is in inescapable. But again you can lay a relation to what want you to do in your live now. Now your parents are living in peace and harmony. Tell here that you must live in the now and not in the future or the past. Now your parents are alive what do you want to do now.

  8. I agree that all the replies above are worthwhile strategies in dealing with this problem, though I do have my doubts about likening death to sleep as that could open up a new set of nightmares. Whatever explanation you decide to run with, I’d make sure it aligned with my own philosophy, and did not hold the promise of “a better life in heaven” or being reborn as a princess etc. if you promise a fanciful post-death existence in which you don’t believe, you may have to recant at a later date. That scenario could lead to a general lack of trust in any future pronouncements .

  9. This is a difficult one, now I might be wrong but the main issue with children is “immediacy”, they worry because they think it’s going to happen tomorrow, they have problems with time scales, if I was to approach the issue I’d try and put it in some sort of context, one approach may be to say, do you think twelve year olds are old? What about twenty year olds?

    People live a long time… a lot longer than cats, dogs and defiantly a lot longer than mice, before you even need worry about losing mummy and daddy “you” will be fifty years old or more!

    Can you imagine being fifty? That’s older than mummy and daddy is now… (Maybe?)

    I guess it’s the equivalent of kicking it into the long grass, but I can’t really think of anything else.

  10. I had similar situation with my then 4 year old son. I had an Aunt die and he had to come to the funeral. This brought up the whole death thing I took a leave out of Sagan’s comments on the nature of the universe and explained to him that we are all born from star dust and when we die we turn back into dust and end up being recycled into different organisms again and again.

    This involved attempting to explain the concept that we are made of bits called atoms which are made in stars. He accepted this but didn’t fully understand it at first. “So aunty >>>>> is going to end up in bits?” ‘Yes’. The coffin arrives in the church “Is Aunty >>>> in that box?!” quite loudly. ‘Yes’, “Is she in bits yet!?”. ‘Not yet’. Latter in the service, “Is she in bits now?!”. ‘No it will take many years’. So it didn’t work perfectly, although everyone around us thought it was highly amusing and and helped lighten the mood.

    It has over the last year been a talking point and he actually has a rudimentary understanding of atoms he knows they’re made in stars and that his parents will eventually die in fact he will eventually die, he occasionally worries about death we tell him that we don’t plan on dying any time soon and he seems to accept that, discussing it has allowed us to explain comparative safety of certain activities yes he is allowed to ride his bike but not yet on the road because if there is an accident he could be killed, instead of just hurt yet you can play with my hammer, but no you can not play with my Linisher belt sander that could kill you. He also understand when he eats it is from an animal or plant that is once alive and that our survival requires us to take the life of others and we should therefore be as kind to them while we farm them as we can. It has also lead to an introduction about evolution and cosmology and I read him from the magic of reality occasionally at bed time and we discuss aspects of different things in there.

    So there will probably always be some anxiety about death, so there should be. But, having grown up religious and worrying about hell till I became an atheist in my teens I’d rather death be a useful fear in him (avoiding certain situations) than fear of eternal damnation afflicting him for potentially the rest of his life. I think any easy answer will only result in postponing the inevitable latter, or giving him a twisted understanding of the universe, better he lean the truth as far as he can comprehend and build on that as he grows.

  11. Hello, There isn’t an easy way to deal with this real issue of life. Perhaps it is a matter of focusing on the issue of life itself, the amazing beautiful things(events) in life, like a lovely sunrise, or sunset – how most every day, though they are the same event, they are unique iterations or versions, and in the case of a sunrise, the opportunity to start the day anew? not to dismiss her concerns but to guide her to the present of being here and focusing on this love you have for her, and you’ll protect her, and be there for her

    The questions should be taken one by one, I agree with that.

    I totally disagree with, any amount of dishonesty, like telling her that she will be okay no matter what ( a lie) and that there will always be somebody there to take care of her – though I am not advocating that you treat her like an adult but don’t lie to her. Rather focus on the positive aspects of life, though reinforce your eternal love, that is something that one can pledge, regardless of the fact that one dies, that even if we die, we will always love you – and that we are very healthy, and you are healthy, so there isn’t anything to be concerned about – that is unless her concerns are about the environment – and apocalyptic bs media and such. my view here is that one should be very careful, what one allows their children to view, as the mainstream media, plays to -especially to children’s fear -something I find so distasteful, but that’s another thread…

    This is all part of the life, and we can look at simple ideas like the earths fluctuating orbit around the sun, and the change that is evidenced in the changing seasons – the main idea here is change, death really is just a significant change; I don’t believe that it is wise to even twist the truth a bit – because lying, especially to one’s children can set precedents that may create other problems, obviously.

    Perhaps it is a cliche-like analogy -though “change” in the context of the relativistic idea, that is pancks constant of change, as it is referenced in the equation(e=mc2), most kids are familiar with this, even young children, and if they’re not, one might, use this as an opportunity to share this knowledge with them— and draw a comparison between this constant of change, which some very famous scientists have agreed upon, that change is constant. children are exploring the world and looking to experience for models – in the case of a young female, it may be positive to mention some stories -about historical female scientists —for instance Eva Ekeblad who became the first woman inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Science way back in 1748…

    Also a good story about Maria Sibylla Merian (1624–1674) -founder of modern botany and zoology who spent her life investigating nature. When she was thirteen, Sibylla began growing caterpillars and studying their metamorphosis into butterflies. Children love butterflies, and will be amazed by the story of the “change” from a caterpillar to a butterfly

    there is that importance of being present, and very much appreciating a young child’s question, probably about, what happens when you die, where do you go?

    the answer that I gave to my son, is that I don’t know, and that nobody knows, we die and this is a great mystery. Mystery is part of the beauty of life – though you will always love your daughter and protect her, if she is scared, maybe someone is threatening or telling her funny stories? or she is trying to figure out why and what all this heaven and hell is about, that is a scary “STORY” to scare kids, and a bloody awful trick…

    Present and loving and protecting, that is probably what she wants to hear and you can give her that in an honest way.

    And there is no end to energy, and everything, that is our bodies are made up of energy, so when we die, though our conciousess, does not continue, there is some aspect of our energy, that dissipates, like the sun beams from a sunrise, disappear…and such is life, though it is my view that one should focus on the present, in being there, and share some gender inspiring stories, focused on love, protection and health, in that healthy, we”l get up in the morning and go for a walk, and have some good breakfast.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_science

    sincerely,

    jas

  12. Samuel,

    You needn’t solve the problem by addressing the problem. If she is worrying about death bring meaning to her life. And slowly inter weave death being an extension or part of life. There needn’t be a better life after for that.

    Nightmares are extensions of the day insecurity may be or just bad thoughts or incomplete thoughts. Speak about stimulating things to her. New things before she sleeps. The Nightmares they will go.
    Play music for her.

    I wouldn’t over stress there being no fear in death either. Sometime it can be interpreted into a life without meaning. And that a child may not know how to handle at a certain age.

    It is very interesting of what you expose her to will last her all her life.

  13. My 7 yo son asked me what happens after we die, just yesterday.

    “Do you remember what it was like before you were born?”
    “No.”
    “It’s like that. A sleep without dreams.”

    • In reply to #18 by zengardener:

      My 7 yo son asked me what happens after we die, just yesterday.

      “Do you remember what it was like before you were born?”
      “No.”
      “It’s like that. A sleep without dreams.”

      Hello
      I might be wrong but perhaps a 7 year old might not realise that, whilst we wake up from the sleep without dreams, death is irreversible. Children have a lot of imagination, and we never know the strange ideas they might come up with. I am saying this bearing in mind mine who is not 7 yet.

  14. I think many well intentioned suggestions apply an adult perspective of an inevitable and daunting part of human experience to the case of a child. I ran across the statement that this was “a time of magical thinking”. There’s a lot of stuff on various aspects of how children deal with death and dying, what problems to watch for, etc. Check out the search results for [Secular Picture Books for Children on Death and Dying].

    My first thought of an expert on how children experience the world and child psychology is Robert Coles. That search led me to an article that refers to Coles that might be really worth looking at Helping Children Spiritually Cope with Dying and Death by Kenneth J. Doka, M.Div., Ph.D. It has a bunch of “Read more” link. It refers to Cole’s book The Spiritual Life of Children:

    Coles’ findings reaffirm two important lessons for the adults present in a child’s life when that child is trying to make sense of illness,
    Everyone has some set of spiritual beliefs even if they do not accept theism, or the practice of incorporating a belief in a higher power or God. It is important to share those spiritual beliefs with your child as well. For example, a parent might not believe in heaven, reincarnation or any form of afterlife, but that parent may still take comfort in the memories that he or she has of a person or find solace in a sense of pride based in the legacy of a deceased individual. Such memories and legacies can be remembered and celebrated.

    Maybe you can find something useful on children/death/mortality at American Academy of Pediatrcs

  15. “I totally disagree with, any amount of dishonesty, like telling her that she will be okay no matter what (a lie) and that there will always be somebody there to take care of her… don’t lie to her.”

    Of course we must lie to children. I remember mine asking about my father’s death. I didn’t explain what prostate cancer is, I lied when they asked if it can be passed on, I lied when tney asked if he was in pain, I said he died “in his sleep” (the increasing pain was offset by increasing morphine) and I certainly didn’t explain that, as an adult, I would have felt much worse if I hadn’t been with him at the moment.

    In Piaget’s terms, a child between the ages of 2 and 7 is In the “preoperational” stage, and is incapable of (for example) seeing things from another person’s point of view. Treating the child like a little adult is ineffective and arguably abusive. For example, this is the age of pretending: children practice relationships with dolls and teddy bears. If a 4-year-old asks whether Teddy likes to be cuddled, only a very poor parent would say: “It’s just a stuffed toy – it doesn’t care if you pull its eyes out.”

  16. She’s worrying about the day her mam and dad will die.

    Tell her that you have no intentions of dying and you will always be there for her. Tell her you love her too much for that to change. Give her a kiss and a big hug – and keep on doing so.

  17. I would tell my kid (or a child in my charge) “I fear death too, and that’s a good thing. Fortunately, we’re pretty safe.”

    Fear of death is a natural thing, and mythologies of the afterlife (and spirit mediums) capitalize on the idea that somehow our identities get to continue on after our material selves perish. But part of the rationalist package is accepting truth even when it is cold, hard or bitter. But while dying may be terrible, death is assuredly not. Nor is it wonderful. Or disappointing. Or anything at all. Most likely, all the time between when you die and the end of the universe goes by in a blink.

    (I say most likely because of that non-zero chance that we’re in the (a) matrix, in which case, we may just keep calm and respawn.)

    Fortunately, to a four-year-old, a (typical) lifetime is a very long time, and this is something one can wait to contemplate. There certainly are higher priorities such as figuring out how to live. Sure danger is everywhere, but it’s minimal, rare danger. Just look both ways when you cross the street, and take an adult with you.

  18. Has your daughter ever been under anaesthesia? If so tell her is is just like that. It is nothing. The difference they can’t wake you up again.

    Do you remember what it was like before you were born? Well, after you are dead feels the same. It is just nothing.

    You have seen how after a bird dies, it gradually turns into dirt. What do you think it is like to be dirt? Do you serious think dirt feels anything?

  19. Dealing with the fear of death is the problem of comforting children who have been abused. Adult Christians received these wounds as children. They may well need the reassurance you would give a child, not a logical answer. What they need, even if it makes no sense, is reassurance is you will protect them from the mean old monster Jehovah.

  20. Hi Samuel,

    I think there were a lot of sensible answers in this thread. I especially liked the part about death being like it was before we were born.

    Please allow me to share my personal experience with this issue. I’m now 25 years old, and when I was a young child, I started worrying about death. More specifically, the death of my loved ones. I can’t recall how young I was, but I’m guessing maybe 6-7 years old.

    I couldn’t sleep. I would cry myself to sleep, or more likely I would cry while my parents tried to console me. I confessed to them my fear, or rather my realization, that my loved ones would almost surely die before me. It helped when I could fall to sleep with them, but sometimes I would pretend to be asleep when my dad carried me off to bed. Only to spare them my suffering. I only had this feeling at night, when I was sleepy and tired. It would happen in phases, some periods longer, some shorter. Sometimes I would simply forget about death for weeks or months. But the realization always returned.

    It was cold. Ultimately, it was lonely. But it helped to talk to my parents. Neither of whom are what you’d classify as religious. We live in a fairly secular country, and religion does not play a role in our life, except for the occasional ceremony (i.e. marriage, funeral, etc.).

    I’m not sure if I’m helping. I’m definitely sure it won’t help if I tell you about how I never really got over it. I’m still terrified of losing my loved ones, and I’m guessing that now I won’t sleep easily tonight, but I cope. In a sense, I think that it’s something everyone has to figure out for themselves. Never underestimate how capable, intelligent and resilient children can be. But you can still guide her.

    I guess that if I were to give advice, based on my own – possibly faulty – recollection, I would say the following; Show her that you love her. Unconditionally. Tell her that you don’t plan on dying any time soon. Don’t lie – but that doesn’t mean you have to tell the brutal truth either. She’ll get used to the idea eventually, but she might always remember how you reacted to this issue.

    Now remember that my experience might be completely different from hers. But it seemed familiar, and I hope that my sharing might help you out. I wish you the best of luck!

    Sincerely,
    Imlekk

  21. I think the best way to explain your kids about death from my point of view is this:

    I believe that at the moment we die we are going to be part of a wonderful universe in a different way where no matter what we are or what we think we are just gonna be part of the magnificent universe, and there’s no doubt that there is nothing more magnificent than looking at the starts, pictures of the universe etc… it is just wonderful that on that day we are going to be part of that touching piece of art.

    (Sorry my English, I speak Spanish and I’m new here)

    • In reply to #30 by Luis_Jiménez:

      I think the best way to explain your kids about death from my point of view is this:

      I believe that at the moment we die we are going to be part of a wonderful universe in a different way where no matter what we are or what we think we are just gonna be part of the magnificent universe, and there’s…

      The Universe is poetic and magnificent.

    • In reply to #33 by Prophiscient:

      I don’t know if a four year old can fully comprehend what it means to die.

      When I was about 4 my sister’s pet turtle died. However, I dug it up every day for weeks thereafter to see if it would stay dead.

      We would cry and cry when goldfish died. My Dad was quite annoyed with us and threatened to cut off all pets if we would carry on so.

  22. lying and deliberately avoiding the truth are not the same. when a child asks about prostate cancer, maybe it is better to say, you can’t catch it by hugging someone. the point is to try and be kind, compassionate, appropriate and consoling. If you’ve raised a child then sometimes, it’s a matter of fact, for getting practice dealing with these issues. sometimes there is no right answer, i am not certain, i still don’t think it’s healthy to “lie” to children. appropriateness is the main issue, it is contextual. though I may be wrong about this, if I’m not then there must exist some kind of lying guide, from the psychology institute, when Johnny turns 13, then it is ok to kill Santa, but “gosh darn it”, not a second sooner!

    spraguelle

  23. Hello, I do not know if this is the best way, but this is how I am dealing with it with my little ones who have same age and asking too many questions about death. I try to explain to them in a “children language” that there is a cause and effect to most things including death. If we are careful when we cross the road, if we do not touch electricity etc etc (all the situations that are dangerous for their age and understanding) then we have no reason to fear death. I also say if we keep our bodies healthy by eating healthy food and exercise then we will live a long life. For the moment it seems to work and it also makes them responsible of their actions. They are too young to explain when death can also be out of our control – they will understand it at a later age. So in other words my theory is to try and educate them at an early age to be responsible of their actions. Now will read the answers of the other posters to see how they have dealt with this issue!

  24. Sorry, I’m going to have to give a different opinion: Read her the Bible. Especially parts like these: (Matthew 19)

    Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.
    Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

    Telling someone that there’s nothing after death is not really fair. You don’t know. If there is “nothing” after death, there is absolutely no way to prove it. On the other hand, we have a Testimony of eternal life. Don’t rob your 4 year old of the Good News. Please.

    • “If there is “nothing” after death, there is absolutely no way to prove it”. You’re not serious, right? Do you have any way to prove that there’s a “kingdom of heaven”? And how about this: 2 Kings 2:23-24 “2:23 And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. 2:24 And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.” The bible is a terrible book full of horrible stories, the last book you want to read to a child to assuage her fears.
      In reply to #38 by Jason V:

      Sorry, I’m going to have to give a different opinion: Read her the Bible. Especially parts like these: (Matthew 19)

      Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.
      Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the ki…

    • In reply to #38 by Jason V:

      Sorry, I’m going to have to give a different opinion: Read her the Bible. Especially parts like these: (Matthew 19)

      Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them.
      Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the ki…

      I hope you’re not suggesting that you read her the whole bible? That would initiate a whole new set of fears.

  25. It’s not that life is so short. It’s just that you’re dead for so lo-o-o-ong!

    Ha ha.

    But, seriously. Ask your four year old if she remember what is was like before she was born. (If she says “Yes,” she’s not being co-operative with you). When she (finally) says “No-o-o-o, I guess not,” then you pounce: “WELL! THAT’S what it like after you’re dead, too!” If that doesn’t work, try a different kid.

  26. I think its normal for kids to worry about that kind of thing. I can remember being very worried about it from about the age of 4 until about 8 when I started realising how much I’d be worth when they died ( that was a JOKE !!!! sorry) No really though, all kids worry about their parents dying and get sad about that stuff I honestly do remember crying about that a few times and then making up sad stories as I fell asleep its just part of the process of coming to terms with how dependent they are on you. I dont think its really about the nature of death but about the nature of love and dependence

  27. All things that live must die. A dog will die. A flower dies. A leaf dies. An ant dies. If they die naturally, they all die fearless. Why should we fare worse than them.

    Mark Twain once said…”we have been dead for a million years”. If indeed true it is, we have been dead longer than we have been alive. We shouldn’t be afraid of something that is longer than we have ever lived. Treasure every moment of life and don’t be a slave of someone’s ideology. Give the best of yourself to every living being in this world for they too share the same fear so live and let live.

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