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How do you talk to kids about death when you don’t believe in God?

My husband is an atheist and I’m agnostic — and not sure I’m comfortable telling our children the afterlife doesn’t exist. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve identified as agnostic, a religiously unaffiliated group that believes it is impossible to know whether god exists and can therefore neither support nor refute the existence of a higher power. I’m not trying to be difficult or a jerk or self-aggrandizing; I can’t comprehend faith the way some simply don’t “speak” advanced calculus or Mandarin. Although there are more agnostics living in America (4 percent according to the Pew Forum) than atheists (3.1 percent), I sometimes think we’re on the receiving end of more antipathy than those who flat-out declare there is no God, no afterlife, no possibilities.

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My husband, an atheist since he was 12, is bold in his rejection of God and religion. He believes we’ll all turn to dust. He can’t conceive of souls or the ultimate reunion of trillions of souls of animals that once roamed the planet. He jokes that I’m “wishy-washy,” that I want to have my cake and it, too; that I’m really just an atheist who wants to be sure I’m on the right side in case of an apocalypse. There may be a grain of truth there, but in my opinion, if there is a God, he/she would want a human to use their natural intelligence to question, debate, waffle and, ultimately, feel so small it would seem cocky to assume anything at all about a maker or the afterlife.

When it comes to our children, a 4-year-old girl and 2-year-old boy, my husband can’t imagine telling them that, when people die, they meet among the clouds, slide down rainbows, hang with celebrity idols and immediately recognize their beloved family members.

I couldn’t imagine it, either. Until my daughter one day asked me where, exactly, was her late grandfather. Why hadn’t she met him? What on earth had earth done with him?

The granddad she spoke of is my husband’s father (also an atheist), who passed away the year we were married. I mention his belief system, or lack thereof, because even as he suffered through stage IV cancer, he never wavered and called out for “God” in desperate hope, the way I just might one day. He wanted to be cremated and didn’t have an opinion about what his children did with his ashes. If he were to suddenly appear and answer my daughter’s question, I’m positive he’d tell her he was “nowhere. Dust. Poof. Gone. Game over. And by the way, don’t feel bad for me: I’ve accepted it.”

But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. And so, I gave her a ridiculous non-answer that I hoped would end the discussion: “Grandpa is everywhere. He’s part of the universe now.”

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Technically, I suppose that’s true — we’re all made up of “star stuff,” right? My response was either so convoluted she lost interest in the topic, or she wasn’t invested in her own question in the first place, having never met her grandfather. She dropped the subject and went off to play.

Dodged a bullet there. But for how long?

Both of my kids are, inevitably, going to ask about God, death, saints, angels and heaven. They’ll hear snippets of information from my Catholic parents and ask why we don’t attend church. I’m prepared to answer that one: We don’t agree with some of the political stances of the church or how it, historically, used religion as an excuse to oppress others, and don’t feel organized religion is required to be a spiritual, connected, kind and loving member of the human race.

If my kids press me (and if they’re old enough to understand it) I will tell them about that time in seventh grade when my parents missed a few church payments and a priest informed them that I wouldn’t be allowed to receive the sacrament of confirmation, but that I was required to sit with my classmates and remain in the pew as they all filed in line down the center of the church. I’ll admit it could have simply been my church, my pastor that came up with that clever, manipulative tactic (which worked like a charm on my parents, I might add), and that not all churches are like that. They deserve to know why church left a bad taste in my mouth.

Still, if my children grow and happen to find in church a source of comfort that my husband and I never could, I won’t stand in their way of attending services and I would hope my husband wouldn’t either. I don’t wish to indoctrinate them into a faith, but if they want religion to play a role in their journey, it’s their journey.

But conversations about death are a different animal.

As their primary protector, I desperately want to soothe them (and myself) with the same stories about heaven and the homecoming of souls and spirits that zapped away the fear of death from my childhood and adolescent mind. I can’t bring myself to think of the people I love most in life existing because of random chance, or casually passing through the planet on their way back to ashes and dust. I really do feel like their actions while they’re here can make an impact on future generations, but whether it all actually means anything — I don’t profess to know.

I’ve asked my husband whether what we tell our kids about death even matters. Isn’t the entire point of preaching about heaven and hell to keep folks in line and doing the right thing so that they get to enjoy a better place when they die? (Counterpoint: shouldn’t they aim to be good without expecting the tastiest cookie of them all at the end of it?) If these thoughts bring comfort and alleviate the fear of dying, isn’t that good enough?

The problem is, it isn’t. Searching for truth is more important to me than comforting oneself with false hope — and therein lies my agnostic parenting dilemma: I refuse to take a dogged stand about the afterlife to produce happy children who don’t question faith, but I can’t rule out the possibility that there could be an afterlife and the assembly of spirits.

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My loosely formed plan is to tell them, when the time is right, that a lot of people believe a lot of different things and that no one has yet to return from the dead to hold a press conference about it all. I want them to respect various beliefs and take their time in forming their own. My hope for them is that they can forever remain open vessels who stand in awe of the cycle of life and death while ultimately accepting it.

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Image: Glenn Gameson-Burrows/Magpie ASD Awareness

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