An Atheist Talks to Her Children About Death
I grew up with a mother who did not believe in God. She was a devout Unitarian, and our Sunday school exposed us to various religions and differing viewpoints regarding faith. Still, I always knew she did not believe in a higher being, though she is a spiritual person who contemplates the majesty of the world and our small place in it with great regularity.
I used to think that she failed me. I wanted to be a kid who could trust that God would protect me during a thunderstorm. I even occasionally made her say prayers with me at bedtime, which she always did. I didn’t feel anything, but wanted to cover my bases, just in case there was someone listening.
Throughout my life, my need to believe in a higher power came and went; I spent a few years in high school as a Born Again Christian, and many more years attending a Catholic church as an adult, but by the time I hit thirty I came to believe much like my mother. There is enough wonder and mystery in this world without the need to attribute it to a deity.
Once I had kids of my own, I struggled in what to teach them about God. Although I had planned on instilling in them a belief in God with instruction to figure out what that meant for each of them, but in the end, I could not do it. I could lie about Santa, lie about the tooth fairy, but I could not give them a faith I did not feel. It was too big of a lie to tell my children.
When my firstborn was five and his brother was three, their beloved guinea pig died, and suddenly we had to talk about death, the afterlife, and the idea of God in a very personal way. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my kids that their very first pet, was in a heaven I wasn’t sure existed. All I could do was give them the options.
“I don’t really know what happens when something dies. No one really knows, because once you are dead you can’t come back and tell us about it. Some people believe that you become an angel, some believe you go to Heaven, and some people think that when you are dead, you are just dead,” I explained. That was as far as I was willing to go.
“I think you become an angel,” my three-year-old decided.
“Not me, Mama. I think when you’re dead, you’re just dead,” my eldest said, sadly but firmly.
It was a pretty harsh statement for a kindergartener, but one I could understand. There was no part of him that has ever believed that God made sense—he’s too grounded in facts and science. He refused the easier way of faith, relying instead on his experience with how the world works, what was true and real, and what science could prove. Still, when he was older, I made him watch a clip of Through the Wormhole that discussed the question of the afterlife. I tried to give him some hope, though he looked at me like I was a used car salesman trying to sell him a bill of goods. I gave up and decided that he was, after all, my child, just like I was my mother’s daughter.
I won’t let him belittle his little brother’s beliefs, or even argue when my little one said he saw an angel once. I try to give them room to find their own way. But I also want him to know that it is okay not to believe. It is okay to need facts and that if something doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t have to buy into it.
I feel a responsibility for his spiritual upbringing, even though neither of us believes in a deity. We walk in the woods and look at the stars. We discuss the wonder of the universe. By the age of seven, he could calculate the Fibonacci Sequence out ten places in his head, and we regularly discussed the beauty of mathematics and how numbers could give order to the natural world, almost with a mystic quality. I make sure to take any opportunity to discuss our responsibility to act as guardians for our environment, and that we are but small beings in the Universe. I want him to feel connected to something bigger than himself, but I want it to be true for him also.
I think I am doing the right thing. I know it would be easier for him to have a simple faith in God, but in the end, I can’t tell that big of a lie to my children. It is bigger than Santa and more important that the tooth fairy.
Lara Lillibridge is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. In 2016 she won Slippery Elm Literary Journal’s Prose Contest, and The American Literary Review’s Contest in Nonfiction. She also was a finalist in both Black Warrior Review’s Nonfiction Contest and DisQuiet’s Literary Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She has had essays published in Pure Slush Vol. 11, Vandalia, and Polychrome Ink; on the web at Hippocampus, Luna Luna, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Airplane Reading, Thirteen Ways to Tell a Story, Weirderary, and Brain Child Magazine’s Brain, Mother blog. Her memoir, “Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home” will debut in November of 2017 with SkyHorse Publishing.