How can I explain where my deceased daughter is to our future children without bringing up religion?

September 24 | Guest post by Ms.C
Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Clouds aren't exactly what I have in mind. Photo by TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³, used under Creative Commons license.
Our first child passed away at five months of age due to cancer. She has her own website, a foundation has been started in her name, and a gigantic place in our hearts and family. Just because she is no longer physically with us does not mean that she is not in our everyday life.

That being said we are beginning to prepare to welcome another child into our lives, and I know that our firstborn will be a big part of their life. The issue is how to explain where our first child is without bringing in religion, or heaven into the conversation.

Both my husband and I are not clear on what we believe the afterlife is all about. Although I was raised Baptist heaven always seemed a strange concept to me, and I cannot picture our daughter floating around on clouds with a halo and angel wings.

How can I make the afterlife a non-scary place for a child without the clouds and harps? — Laura

In the past, when there have been posts on the theme of "how do I tell my kid about…?" questions on Offbeat Home, people offer something along the lines of "Make sure you don't offer more information than they're really asking for/needing/ready to understand."

For example, I thought about how I would tell my daughter that she doesn't have any grandpas, long before she wondered, but decided to wait to talk about it until she noticed. At around two-and-a-half she noticed. She didn't so much ask as tell me, that she didn't have any grandpa's. I confirmed that, "You're right, you don't have any grandpa's. Some kids have grandpa's and some don't." She seemed satisfied, so I didn't have to launch into the lecture I had brewing.

Maybe next she'll ask why, and I'll see if I can figure out what information she wants.

With older kids, I might ask how they feel about what I've said, was that what they wanted to know, did they have any other questions… And if it came down to my daughter actually asking where grandpa, or any other creature, went when they died, I'd give her my opinion, and be very clear that it's my opinion, and other people think differently, and that's okay.

It's an imperfect science. And I know that can be unsettling, when sometimes kids just want one real, infallible truth, but I think it's important to let them experience that uneasiness, and get used to the idea that opinions don't make facts.

  1. Oh wow. Can I first say how sorry I am for your loss? I have not experienced the loss of a child and don't know if my take will be appropriate. I lost my father when I was 23, and how I've explained "Pop-pop" to my daughter is by using something similar to Philip Pullman's concept of "dust." I find it comforting to suggest that we are all made up of particles of matter and consciousness, and that when we die, the matter particles become dust-dust and the consciousness particles become infused in us or in our memories, or into the world at large. It borrow from Shinto stuff, too. I guess all I'm saying is, it straddles the line between a strictly atheist perspective and a more spiritual one, and, to me, is beautiful and comforting. Maybe you can craft your own or a similar explanation based on what feels right to you? How wonderful to be welcoming another little one soon.

    3 agree
    • Oh, wow! What a beautiful way to put it! I love using Dust as a way to describe it.

      I also immediately thought of the opening quote in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows:
      "Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal."
      -William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude

      It's not religious, but it does speak of how someone may be behind that veil, it doesn't mean they're gone from our lives.

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    • I'm an atheist, but if I were to believe in some sort of supernatural force, it would be Dust. That was my first thought on reading those books. Makes way more sense to just say that the atoms of our bodies go back to join the other atoms of the universe, and our consciousness dissolves into the rest of the universe as well.

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  2. Hi Laura! First of all, my heart goes out to you and your family. I have been a part of the childhood cancer community in the SF Bay Area for about fifteen years now. I've often struggled with how to convey my condolences as an atheist/agnostic. Whenever a friend or camper loses a sibling, I find myself saying something along the lines that she or he lives in our hearts and memories. That way, I am still being true with my atheist/agnostic beliefs, while also acknowledging the power of memory and love, even after death. I'm not sure if this will be useful to you, but I thought I'd share.

    Also, SuperSibs might have some resources for parents in your situation: http://www.supersibs.org. They are a (secular!) resource for siblings of patients with cancer, and I know they offer bereavement services for siblings. I wonder if they also have information for parents about how to talk to the siblings about death.

    I'm sending you, your partner, and your expected lots of love and hugs!

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  3. I'm not sure how my parent broached the subject with me. My middle name is a combination of two of my dad's children that died in a car accident. I feel like I've always known that. They probably gave me bits and pieces over the years as age appropriately as they could.

    1 agrees
  4. Laura,
    I can not even imagine everything you've been through. Losing a child that you've had the chance to love and hold and dream a future for is something no parent should ever have to experience. I personally haven't and I know there is no way I can understand how it feels to be you in this situation.
    As far as explaining death- a little boy in my life, who was at the time 4, once asked me about death. He said "Does it hurt to die?" I answered him as straightforwardly as I could and said "well, it depends on how you die. some people die in their sleep and some people die in accidents." He said, "no, I mean, does it hurt to bE dead?" And so I had to think for a minute (I was also raised in the church and when I was younger I was terrified of the notion of afterlife… what if I didn't believe hard enough and what about the others that couldn't go because they believed something different and what about my best friend… she was going to hell???). My beliefs are not what they were. I've come to different understandings of life and harmony with the world. But how to explain that to a 4 year old? So I said "Well, remember before you were born?" He asked if I meant while in the womb (though he said "when I was in my mom?"). I said, "no, I mean, before you existed. did it hurt then?" and then I said. "I think it's the same."
    I also love Sarah's explanation. Because we are a compilation of all the experiences we've had and all of the people that have been a part of our lives. I never got to know my grandparents, but my mom did, and she is who she is because of them.

    1 agrees
  5. Just thinking about the first law of thermodynamics which states: "Energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed." Good luck!

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  6. I'm currently interning as a hospital chaplain at a level one trauma center hospital, and have been learning a lot about grief and loss. One of the things we do with people who are experiencing grief (and it sounds like you know this from what you've mentioned of your grief work here) is encourage them to continue to be in relationship with their loved one through annual celebrations and other ways of continuing the bonds of care that bound you together while your daughter was alive.

    I would think that is a good place to start – continuing to celebrate your daughter's life and the love you hold for her with your new child and not putting a lot of energy into answering questions that you really don't know the answer to. Your daughter died and yet you still love her, celebrate her, and hold relationship with her. Her new sibling can participate in this and through these build his or her own bond to her sibling despite not meeting her in life. I think that's beautiful and maybe it's enough. If you hold beliefs about what happens after somebody dies those can be part of the discussion but if you don't I think thats okay. Kids are sometimes better with unknowns than adults are, and I bet your child will be able to hold the not-knowing just fine.

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  7. I grew up thinking of death as a long, peaceful sleep that we don't wake up from. My parents were always open with us about family members who had died, and I think we accepted this explanation without too many questions, until we were older and ready for a more full understanding.

    On a different note, I wanted to say how much I appreciated your previous post prior to Mother's Day. It was one of the most touching things I think I have ever read, and I have often thought of it since. I became pregnant last year in the same month that I lost my Mum, and I was approaching Mother's Day this year with some trepidation. Even though I was absolutely loving being a new mother and felt incredibly blessed to have a beautiful daughter (she was 3 months old at the time), I wondered if the day would feel a little overshadowed by not being able to call or visit my Mum. Your post put everything in perspective for me and made me realise how fortunate I am and how I need to make the most of each day and occasion. I embraced my first Mother's Day as a mother and have lovely, happy memories.

    Best wishes to you and your partner and family.

  8. This is a bit silly, but I remember this conversation from when I was about seven. I became aware of death for the first time, and quizzed my mother. She told me that she thought we are more than our vessels. She said that it was like driving a car. If your car dies you, the driver, get out of the car and what happens then is a matter of opinion. Some people believe you get a new car and continue your journey along the same highway. Other people believe that you never drive a car again, but go to the land of car-less. And still other people believe that we are the car with no driver. She then asked what I thought might happen. I had no idea, but it was nice that she put the ball in my court so quickly without over burdening me with her ideas. I guess this was bringing up religion, which you don't want to do, albeit religion without titles. Anyway I have always appreciated the gentle and thoughtful way my mom helped me understand death for the first time. I also really like the suggestion another commenter made that you needn't address the issue until your little one brings it up. Best wishes to you and your family.

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  9. My dad once told us how when we die our matter is recycled to make plants, other people, animals, rocks, everything. We go back into the earth and become it. We give life to other things when we are gone.

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  10. i've always personally found the concept of the "summerlands" to be comforting…..when my first grandfather died, i imagined him in a backyard under a tree, smoking his cigars, playing solitaire, taking naps, and reading the paper just like always; not here, but enjoying his favorite things, and able to hear when we spoke to him.
    i think i was 20 when he died, and i am a pagan, but it's a much more generic thing than a set "heaven" with halos and angels; a place where people of all backgrounds can be.

    2 agree
  11. First, what a beautiful baby she is! I read your website for her and laughed and cried, laughed and cried. And my mama heart aches for you, and cheers your strength and courage. My faith (non denominational Christianity) would teach that she is in heaven, but not floating with a harp. Instead she is learning and growing just as she would be here. She is being cared for and loved on by your departed loved ones. She's never cold, sick, or scared, but always loved, always happy, always content.

    I agree with the previous blogger who said that children only need small bits of information at a time. Also, anything they grow up hearing, they will accept without considering strange. I think it is more than accurate to say, "your big sister passed away before you were born. She lives in our hearts and she lives in yours." I am sending so much white light mama love your way!!

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  12. One of my dad's younger brothers (out of 8 siblings total) died of a rare birth defect when he was a few days old. From a very small age I was told the story of Uncle Martin, about how he never came home from the hospital but how he was still a part of our family. It wasn't a big morbid thing that we talked about a lot or something, but it was definitely part of the mythology, if you will, of our family.

    The funny thing is that even though my family is devoutly Catholic (my grandmother in particular) I don't remember there being a whole lot of talk about where Uncle Martin went after he died. The overall story was just about the fact that he EXISTED and was worthy of remembrance.

    My sincere condolences on the loss of your little one. I can't imagine what that must have been like for you and your family.

    1 agrees
  13. When I was three, my younger sister died during a liver transplant. She was eighteen months old.

    My agnostic/atheist parents were devastated, of course, and explained Emily's death to me in a very matter of fact way: she lived and then she died; it was very sad and we missed her but she was dead. I'm sure they were THRILLED when, for a couple of months after her death, I greeted everyone new with, "You know Emily? She died."

    When I was a bit older and better able to grasp loss and understand my parents' pain, I don't remember feeling confused about Emily's death or where she was. I hadn't been raised with any particular notion of an "afterlife" and it was enough for me to know that she had lived.

    When I had the questions all kids have about life and death, they were naturally wrapped up with thoughts of Emily. My mom told me stories from different faiths and about others' beliefs. She encouraged my imagination. In particular, there was an Aboriginal Canadian story in a big coffee table book that my mom read to me one night when I was particularly frightened about dying. It was immensely reassuring to know that while my parents' didn't have the answers to all of life's questions, I wasn't the only one thinking about it.

    As one of the above posters put so beautifully, Emily's existence weaved itself into our family mythology. Teach your children that it's okay to be scared and to not know the answers. It happens to grown-ups all the time.

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    • I was content just lurking in the comments until I read yours. Our oldest son (A) died in November of last year. He was five. Trying to explain that to our then three (now four) year old (J)was beyond hard. As a family we border on Pagan/Agnostic so our explanation to him was much like the one your parents gave you. And still, almost a year later, J will tell anyone who will listen "You know A? My brother? He died." He's so matter of fact about it, it rips my soul apart. He knows that his brother is gone, but still in our hearts and still a member of our family.

      1 agrees
  14. I couldn't post this comment at first, maybe adding a URL at the end made it seem like spam?

    I'd recommend looking for Heather Spohr's blog, The Spohrs are Mulitplying. She often mentions about how she talks to her second daughter about her older sister who died before she was born.

  15. Though I am not very religious but I lit a candle for your darling Zoe today. The idea of dust is nice. As a child I thought that we become stardust, mainly influenced by The Lion King and the Mufasa clouds 🙂

  16. Firstly, I am very sorry for your loss. Death is difficult enough to come to terms with on your own, let alone trying to explain it to a little one.

    I'd recommend trying to explain the "circle of life", the scientific facts of what happens when a person dies. The body becomes nutrients for the grass, the grass feeds the deer, the deer feed us, etc. Really, however you want to explain it. The beauty in that explanation is that it avoids religious concepts entirely and it's a way to show that your lost little one is still part of the big picture even though she isn't there.

  17. I've kept this page saved to read the comments since it came out on my rss, but have been too scared to open until now. I also lost a child, my 33month old son, immediately before i became pregnant with my daughter. I've always worried about how to explain him to her, when she would ask, would she be scared… As she is only 2.5 there hasn't been much, no questions at all, but whenever she sees his photo or something which was his, I'll say "that's (or belonged to) your brother, Jareth" and sometimes add "he's gone now" or "he died". She's always been nonplussed and continued on her way. Obviously more will come which will be challenging, but I feel that by giving her a very neutral entry into the concept at a young age I've paved the way

    1 agrees

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