Confronting Death As An Atheist Parent
“T” was five years old when she first encountered death. The back door slammed shut behind her, and I could hear her sniffling before I could even see her. She sat the basket of eggs she’d been carrying down and told me that Susan, her prize chicken, was on the floor of the coop and wouldn’t wake up. Susan, the hen who began her life in an incubator on our breakfast bar, hatching too early and almost dying, living because of a couple of quickly Googled interventions and her own sheer, chickeny willpower. Susan, who my daughter babied, and carried around, and smuggled grapes out to in her pockets until she was as tame as a housecat. She wasn’t just a chicken; she was T’s best friend.
Living on a 20 acre goat farm in Texas had given my daughter a multitude of experiences that my husband and I could not have offered her elsewhere. She had already experienced the high of watching one of our does push a pair of yelling, viscera-covered kids into the world. She had watched baby chicks slowly peck their way out of their eggshells after an agonizing (for her) 21 day incubation. As I watched her enjoying these things I knew that for every riotous, joy-filled birth one day predation or old age or disease would bring an equalizing sorrow. And I knew that she would look to me for comfort and answers.
I had been anticipating the conversation for a little over a year, ever since realizing I was more than just a backslid Christian with agnostic leanings – I was an atheist- but I still wasn’t prepared to help her understand the loss. I had barely sorted out my own feelings on the afterlife, or lack thereof, yet here she was in front of me with tears streaming down her grubby farm kid face. My baby had been touched by real grief for the first time.
My first instinct was to return to my roots. I was raised in church where death either meant unending life in paradise, or an eternal flame-grilling in hell. Even now bible verses will suddenly run through my head like the lyrics to bad 90s pop must run through the heads of my more traditionally-raised peers. The pull to just pat her head and tell her that Susan would be waiting for her in the chicken section of heaven was strong, but I knew that on the other side of that coin is hell. I spent a good-sized chunk of my life fearing an imaginary place, so I didn’t want her to look back on this moment and remember me lending that idea support in any way.
Before this experience the thing that I most feared about dealing with death from an atheist’s perspective was simply not being able to comfort my child. The bald reality of death, for me, is that when it’s over it’s over. In my adult way of thinking that sounds like one eternal nap, which isn’t a terrible thing to look forward to, all things considered. But how many kids out there would like that idea? It’s a lot easier to tell a five-year-old that their loved ones are enjoying a big party in the sky, just waiting for us to reunite with them. It’s easier to tell them that death doesn’t mean it’s over.
I couldn’t do that. So I held her, and stroked her hair, and told her that Susan was gone. That sometimes animals and people get sick, and we don’t always know why. I explained that the sadness we feel when a loved one dies is a part of our love for them. That Susan loved her very much, and even when it hurts love is the most important thing we can give each other. When we miss someone terribly the very best parts of them are still alive in our memories.
She responded well, and seemed to understand that her friend was gone, but she still had questions about what would happen to her body. We talked about burial, and how Susan’s body would slowly be absorbed back into the earth. Prior to Susan’s death I bought T a great little book called “Older Than the Stars.” It explains where life originated, and talks about how when plants and animals die their atoms are released back into the ground to begin new life. It’s not specifically about death, but it did help her understand that even though Susan was gone she was still a part of the world in a way. T seemed hugely comforted by this concept.
Atheism makes everything more immediate. Life is fleeting, and we only have one shot at it – no re-dos, no backsies. It’s beautiful in a way; it makes the love we share with our family and friends that much more precious, because we only have so much time to express our love. Even though I didn’t have the promise of an afterlife to offer my grieving child, I could offer her the idea that it’s important to love while we can and to not waste our energy on pettiness and anger. And I can tell her that without a doubt her loved ones, while gone, will live on and on in different forms. It is a different kind of eternity, but it’s one that spoke to T.
I didn’t have to make things up or parrot the religious aphorisms of my youth to bring her comfort and understanding. I didn’t have to trash those ideas either. All I had to do was be there for her, just like any mom would do, and answer her questions as honestly as I could. For us it’s enough.