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Raul Rubio

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Raul Rubio


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children
death
kids
Sat, Mar 07, 2015 - 12:57 AM

How do humanists explain death to children?

This question comes up rather frequently in conversations with the religion/spiritual folks. I wonder how other humanists might answer this question.


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Bo Bennett, PhD
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Bo Bennett, PhD

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Print Sat, Mar 07, 2015 - 03:16 PM
Big question, one that I am not sure can be summed up in a short post. Before I attempt such a feat, I would recommend people to Dale McGowan's book, Parenting Beyond Belief. He devoted a whole chapter to the topic (chapter 6: Death and Consolation).

I explained to my kids that being dead is very likely like not being born yet, although nobody could know for sure. After you die, there is no "you" to be frightened or afraid. Those who die don't miss us (because they no longer exist), although it is perfectly normal for us to miss them. We should not feel sorry for people who die, but feel for the people they left behind. I explain how new people are being born all the time and this is the cycle of life—a temporary one that makes every moment being alive special. Although we don't believe in infinite life, as humanists, we do believe that life has infinite value.

My 14 and 15 year-old children are very well adjusted and dealt with death several times already. From an anecdotal perspective, my explanation seems to be working for them.
Bo Bennett, PhD
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About My Businesses > http://www.archieboy.com
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Mini Carlsson

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 10:15 AM
It's a part of life and it's nothing to fear...
This gives parents an opportunity to instill the power of the here and now and to be mindful of those that mean a lot to us.


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Stephen Sywak

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 12:42 AM
When my mother passed away 20 years ago. my children were 3 and 5.

My father (still around!) was and is an agnostic, my mother was atheist, I was and still am an atheist, and my wife was and is...I'll say "agnostic."

We told my kids pretty honestly what was happening. Grandma was very sick, the doctors are doing the best that they can to make her better again. Grandma was undergoing chemotherapy to try and kill off the cancer, and it will make her very weak. No discussions, EVER, of "Grandma will go to heaven" or that she would become an angel, or that she would be looking down at them from heaven, or even that they might meet her again in heaven. my kids KNEW about "heaven," they certainly had heard it discussed, heard it on the television, heard it from friends, but they also knew that none of us believed in it.

I honestly cannot remember if either of them asked us, "but will grandma be going to heaven?" I can honestly tell you that if they had, we would have gently told them, "No, we don't think that's going to happen."

What DID happen was they they spent time with her, held her hand, hugged her when they could, and talked with her. My son, who was 3 at the time, understood the gravity of the situation, and was very mature in the way he spoke with her and showed her his love.

Now they are 23 and 25, and they have both grown into amazing young adults. Both tending towards humanism and away from theism. Both pretty reasonable, pretty rational people. I continue to believe that the way we dealt with their grandmother's death was the right way to do it--it was certainly the most honest way we could do it!


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Charles Martin

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 08:55 PM
Ok, I think I have figured out how to post.
I am a combat soldier, and when I took custody of my son he moved in with my mother at the age of 6. He grew up on our family farm, with birth, life , and death always a part of his surroundings. My death was always a greater possibility than the death of his friends parents. I lived and enjoyed life, and taught him to do so as well. With out unnecessary risk taking. aka riding a motor bike, but not popping wheelies. He learned there is No life without death. and how we live our lives makes them worth while. Last summer my mother died. She knew, from her doctors, when she would die a year before, they were only off by a week or two. For his purposes, she was his mother as well. His care giver and his strength. She prepared us, but for him and his cousins, now all in their 20's, losing grandma has been hard. I try to tell them they did not lose her. Yes she is gone, you will not talk with her or see her smile or feel her hugs. But their memories of her are just and will keep what she lived for alive, if they live as she would have wanted them too. To get the most from life, while being true to themselves. To find their own happiness, and share it with others. That is what life is, and one cannot have that if the is no death.


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Neil Stahl

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 08:01 PM
I'd tell anyone I expect it's like being in a deep dreamless sleep from which you never wake up. Life is over when you are dead so make the most of your life while you are alive and try to make the world a better place than it would have been without you.


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Ronnie Kramer

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Print Mon, Mar 09, 2015 - 01:30 AM
I would try to use observation to explain death. There is no difference in the birth, life, and death of a believer and a non-believer. We can observe a butterly laying an egg on a milkweek; that egg hatching and becoming a caterpillar; that caterpillar growing and changing into a butterfly; and that butterfly eventually laying eggs and dying. These things we see, we understand, we know.

When the butterfly dies, some people think it is the end and they want to believe that this individual carries on in some unseen world. Some people see that the butterfly has merely shed one skin and and carries on in the egg it has laid. Isn't the egg destroyed when it hatches and the first install caterpillar begins to feed. When that larvae sheds it's exoskeleton, isn't it destroyed, as it becomes the second instar larvae? And so on through half a dozen stages until it the larvae is finally destroyed completely, and forms a chrysalis, and becomes a butterfly? Once that butterfly has laid its eggs, it can die, but it can never cease.


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Charles Brown
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Print Mon, Mar 09, 2015 - 06:57 AM
Focusing on death is the wrong response, in my opinion.
You explain to your child about life... every day, in every circumstance, you explain what it means to be alive and to live.
Part of that explanation and experience will necessarily include failure, sickness, accidents, and tragedy...
"Death is nothing but the absence of life. And life is everything. " Rabbi Jay Holstein.

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Stacy Westly
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Print Tue, Mar 10, 2015 - 04:30 PM
Easy. We are born, we live, and we die. This is the cycle of life. This applies to plants, animals, stars, human beings ... everything. It is not a difficult concept for children to accept, nor is it difficult for a parent to explain. The great thing about being a humanist is that we don't have to play the game of "do what the (insert book here) says or you will not get into heaven."


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Shannon Massman

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 04:08 AM
With the truth. That is, carefully, but to the best of our ability and without deriving an explanation from fear.

I am very fond of Bo Bennet's answer to this question, who was here before me. The question is a very important one. The fact that there is no evidence that we exist beyond this life is a very heavy responsibility for all of us. It is so important in shaping every day of our own, that it deserves special attention in how we deliver this lifelong influence to our children.

However, I'd like to point out that the question is pregnant with a typical religious threat, pitting atheists against theists with a hidden implication: "Aren't you afraid? Afraid you might be wrong, and end up damned? Afraid that if you were right, and then that would be the end of you?" This question has many flavors, and uses fear to hold the person questioned hostage to a supreme being. Except, the question goes one ugly step further, and makes these threats to our loved ones. To our children.

Therefore, with the truth.


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Charles Martin

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Print Sun, Mar 08, 2015 - 01:35 PM
I thought my response to you was an answer, could you post it for me for all to read?


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Terry Stussy

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Print Tue, Mar 10, 2015 - 05:21 PM
When you die, you cease to live, so make the best of everyday, and spend as much time with loved ones a possible. Learn everything you can, and pass on that knowledge to whomever will listen. You only get one chance to live, so do it right.

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Kate Kosman

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Print Tue, Mar 10, 2015 - 07:30 PM
I've actually blogged about this very question, or my own experience with talking to my children about death in my post What Dies Beyond Death. My daughter was about 10 at the time when our neighbor's dog died. She found that the church she and her friends hung out at didn't give a satisfactory answer. I told her that my own personal feeling was that death was the end of us as we are, but that every atom that makes up our body goes somewhere, becomes part of something else on this earth. I find that usually when people talk about what death is, they're really asking what happens AFTER death.


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R Lee

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Print Wed, Mar 11, 2015 - 12:18 PM
I too have explained to my children that death is something we all face and is something we simply must accept. With respect to what happens after death, I think the most reasonable answer is that things return to the way they were before we were born - no reason to worry too much about that.
As far as "religion" or "god(s)," I've shared this:
"Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but...will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones."


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Theron Cook

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Print Thu, Mar 12, 2015 - 02:14 AM
I would explain to them that every atom in our bodies is interconnected and was once part of a timeless singularity at the moment of the big bang, and that our energy is cyclical and infinite. In some way, we all go on forever. To me, this concept is far more beautiful than anything written in ancient religious texts.


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Robert Moore

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Print Tue, Jul 07, 2015 - 03:12 PM
I explained that death is part of life. It is like writing a story. When the final sentence is written in the story, it is the end of that story, but we can remember the story even if the book is lost. I use the viewpoint that the person (or pet) is gone, but we still remember at least some of the person. This led to other questions such as about an afterlife and gods. I said there is no afterlife in the sense of spirits, angels, etc., but because we are made of energy and matter, neither the energy nor the matter is actually gone, but it takes another form in the natural world in a sort of continuous recycling. I said gods are make believe sort of like Santa Claus. A long time ago before we learned about how things really work, people made up gods to explain things they did not understand and that frightened them like storms or earthquakes and some people who wanted to be in charge used these stories to scare people who doing what the king or priests wanted them to do.


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Amy E Hall
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Print Wed, Jul 08, 2015 - 10:41 PM
I don't have kids. But from my memory, the worse thing about being a child is fear of the unknown. Humans made up this idea of an afterlife to quell those fears as well as control behavior in this one. My indoctrination did not "Take" as such. However I do think I held onto the idea of an afterlife into my 20s until my Grandfather died. It was then that I truly understood that I didn't believe and that, if none of the teachings of Heaven were true, it meant that I would never see my Grandfather or my Father again. That was the moment I truly grieved for them. But I did finally stop dreaming that I would see them again.
My point is that, if you refrain from suggestion the idea of an afterlife, you don't have anything to undo later. However there will be the constant barrage of people talking of heaven. And it is really appealing, death is scary.
My enlightenment came from investigation other religions and religious history.
Just as a child has to learn the difference between reality and pretend; a child also has to learn the difference between what can be true and what you wish were true.


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Charles Brown
Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 06:04:54 AM
@Whoever suggested children can't understand "absence of life"...

Turn out the light... absence of light. The dark is nothing but the absence of light. There is no such thing as some or a lot of dark. You can't measure dark. You can only measure light.
It is the same with life and death.
(The same goes with cold and heat)

Children are a lot smarter than you give them credit for. They haven't been taught how not to think yet.
IF they are too young to understand this simple concept, you need to talk to them about death, yet. .

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Raul Rubio
Sunday, March 08, 2015 - 01:18:32 PM
@Shannon Massman: You state: <However, I'd like to point out that the question is pregnant with a typical religious threat, pitting atheists against theists with a hidden implication: "Aren't you afraid?">

You are correct. I try to think of questions (or get ideas from my theist friends) and post them here to get the conversation going. I figure that if my theist friends are asking, so are other theists of other atheists/agnostics/humanists/secularists...

These have all been great answers.

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Shannon Massman
Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:05:38 AM
Yes I appreciate that. I've read other questions you posted here and the following comments, and was aware that you seek to forward questions from others' perspectives. I just thought it was interesting that no one had commented on the religious privilege the question empowers.

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Shannon Massman
Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 12:10:25 AM
p.s. the person who privately and anonymously flamed me for assuming you are a theist, and suggested I read your question more carefully, should, umm... read my response more carefully ;) Also, they should note that I don't consider theism in and of itself to be an insult.

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Raul Rubio
Sunday, March 08, 2015 - 04:10:08 PM
@Charles Martin: I am a soldier, and my son was raised by my mother on our family farm. From a young age he raised pigs and rabbits, and helped butcher them. That is how he bought his new car at the age of 20, as he was allowed a share of the profits.(he had a car at 16 and drove the truck in the fields at 12, but we do not let young drivers have expensive cars in my family). Although he understood death, and was always aware I had a dangerous job, he was still upset at 17 when I went back to Iraq in 2008. He did not tell me this until I came home.
I and my mother, who died this last summer, taught him you can not have life with death. Her death was coming and we were all aware a year before when it would happen. She knew she had much life left to live at 72, but there you are.
So live when you have the chance. Do not put off fun times, or start a bucket list at 60. live now, but do so with a bit of sense.

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Pamela Kabanda
Saturday, March 07, 2015 - 01:35:51 AM
The best way to explain to children about death is that life is short and we should for today and not worry about yesterday or tomorrow because life is short so we should live to the maximum.

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