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Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

I do not believe in God — any god. I strive to be a good atheist and person by setting an example of decency to all and service to my community. The whole “good without god” thing.

In raising my 6 and 7 year old sons, I’ve always responded to the rare god/heaven/religion questions with “That’s what some people believe, but lots of people including me don’t.” That’s always felt like a clever answer, and been easy in the abstract, and I pride myself on not lying to or indoctrinating them with bogus beliefs I don’t share.

But my mom is dying…soon. She’s been given “weeks to months” to live. I’ve got my own grieving to do, but better and lesser people than me have gotten through it, and so will I. (said through tears, lest you think I’m a cold-hearted bastard) She’s religious (LDS) and completely confident she’s queued up for an afterlife, but I see it as saying goodbye forever. (yes, she’ll live on in our memories and how we honor her with service, etc., but still…dead is gone, it’s not the same.) I’m already planning on shrugging my way through the countless “she’s in a better place” references, but what about my boys for whom the question/statement will guide their impressions of what happened to grandma?

Facing this very real situation I find myself debating the advantages/drawbacks of letting them believe the myth that grandma’s looking down on them from heaven to help them cope/grieve. I sure won’t be the one telling them that, but they’re gonna hear it from left and right, and when they ask me about it I think I’m going to bite my tongue and say something “Yup!” or more likely something less certain that still doesn’t amount to outright rejection. “I dunno buddy, maybe, I sure hope so!” I’m thinking of it like Santa Claus and the stockings — a short term lie/myth that I ignore/perpetuate until they’re old enough to consider the facts/faith and decide for themselves how they want to think about their grandmother.

Net-net, I want to be a good parent and do what I can to make the loss of their grandmother as easy as possible for my boys, but I also want to stand by my beliefs, even as they are put to the test.

Any advice?

– Neil

Dear Neil,

Firstly, please accept my heartfelt wishes for your mother’s comfort in her illness and for your comfort in your grief.

Secondly, you’re an excellent father because you’re giving your sons respect, and you’re demonstrating integrity. You’re clearly not a “cold-hearted bastard,” and you don’t have to choose between that extreme or the other extreme of supporting feel-good fairytales. I think you should continue to be consistently honest with your boys even now when it might be tempting to “kid” your kids. This is where respect and integrity will be the most important; when it is about real people and events, and not just in the abstract.

The most precious gift you are giving them, the most important role you are playing as a parent is being the man who always tells them the truth as he sees it. As small children, they naturally come to you for answers to their questions. But as they grow, they will continue to come to you only if you consistently demonstrate for them the difference between truth and honesty.

Too often, people who fancy that they possess the truth, especially when they spell it with a capital “T”, lose track of being honest. With your sons, you are being honest about what you’re sure of, honest about what you think might be so, and honest about what you just don’t know. If they imitate and adopt that kind of integrity, it will serve them well their whole lives. Don’t discard that in a futile attempt to spare them sadness.

Sadness is an important and inevitable part of life, and trying in vain to “protect” them from it with fantasies will only cause problems later. It does not “help them to cope and grieve,” it only postpones their coping and grieving until they are not as good at learning to cope with feelings, and they’re better practiced at avoiding feelings.

At each stage of their development, children become more capable of understanding concepts such as death, and their emotions will be equal to their current level of understanding. At the age of your two sons, most children have just begun to realize that dead things don’t come back, but it is still mostly abstract and distant when applied to themselves and other people. So children feel a child’s level of grief, and adults feel an adult’s level of grief. Supported by your caring attention, they are not likely to be devastated by their feelings.

So instead of trying to protect them from their feelings, provide them reassurance that they do not have to endure their feelings alone. The most injurious experience of childhood is not sadness and grief; it is abandonment or the threat of abandonment, being left to cope on their own. Don’t worry, refraining from confirming the reassuring stories they may hear from their relatives does not have to mean coldly abandoning them to emotionally fend for themselves. Instead, it is respecting and validating the reality of their emotions, and reaffirming that you are there to walk through it all with them in the here and now.

Comfort them with your company instead of with wishful thinking. Be an open ear to their feelings, but also respect their need to quietly brood for a while. Also just as importantly, let them comfort you if they wish. Helping to soothe someone soothes the helper as well.

Your sons will not just be listening to your words, they will also be watching your reactions to the events playing out. Even though they will have their own level of feelings, they will be learning how to handle their feelings in the future by watching how you handle yours. Do not try to hide your sadness from them, afraid that you will be adding to their burden. Let them see that it is not only okay to express feelings, it’s important, and that doing so in the company of your loved ones is the best way. As the old proverb says, “A grief shared is half a grief, and a joy shared is twice a joy.”

The time during and shortly after the memorial service or funeral will be hectic and filled with people with all sorts of beliefs. Some of them will not stop for a moment to consider what your wishes might be when they express their beliefs to your boys. So it might be helpful to prepare your boys shortly ahead of time. Let them know that some people will probably tell them that “Grandma’s in a better place,” or that “You’ll all be together again in heaven,” and similar things.

Tell them that this is how many people help themselves feel better, and they’re trying to help the boys feel better too. Encourage them to ask you about such things just as they have in the past. Let your basic honest response be as you have consistently done: “Well buddy, lots of folks believe that stuff, and lots of folks do not. I don’t, but nobody really knows. What I do know for certain is that I miss her a lot and I love you a lot.” Then offer them those things you mentioned about remembering her and honoring her by copying the best of her example.

Neil, as you said, you have your own grieving to do. Be sure to attend to your own grief with as much permission and latitude as you give to your children. Don’t let the idea of protecting them from grief actually be an attempt to vicariously protect yourself from your own, and don’t distract yourself from your own feelings by focusing exclusively on theirs.

Grief comes in waves. Large and rapid at first, gradually diminishing in intensity, length and frequency. Whenever one comes on, stop whatever you’re doing and let it have its say in your mind without distraction or interference. Express your feelings just as they are, and in its time the wave will pass. Just as you have done for your kids, give yourself the company of loving adults, and give yourself some time alone as well.

I strongly recommend that you buy and keep two excellent books by Dale McGowan, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. Both have very insightful and practical chapters on talking to children about death. Read those chapters, and after this difficult time has passed, read the rest of both books.

Wherever and whenever you learn a good thing to do for your children, remember it also applies to you. You’re already doing a very good job nurturing your boys, and you can expand that same wisdom to include nurturing yourself.


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