Posted on | December 22, 2011 | 1 Comment
One of my great worries as a parent and atheist was to have to, one day, unavoidably explain death and grief to my children. I should point out that this is probably a thought that worries every parent, no matter what their convictions are. But while other modes of thought offer frames, guides or tool to present a preconceived vision of death, I had to find other means to discuss the issue.
The occasion unfortunately happened this week following death in my family. I’ll take this opportunity to share my experience and thoughts on the matter. I don’t expect them to have universal appeal. My reactions and those of my children were motivated by our previous experiences, thoughts and education. They probably won’t apply to every context.
In any case, the death of an extended family member, whom they had met a few times before, allowed me to bring up the issue. As there had been warning signs, their mother had talked with them a bit before. Things drew to a close, and I had no choice but to sit down with them to bring them the sad news.
While the youngest wasn’t overly moved (he has only the vaguest memories of the departed) the eldest, who has also begun to build strong family values, reacted more strongly. But once the shock and tears were over, we could deal with the matters of grief and death in general.
To my great surprise, the topic of what would come « after » was never even raised. Their questions mostly touched on the causes of death. Why do some people die old, other young (they had the recent news of the tragic death by drowning of a 6 year-old boy in mind)? Where do people live the longest? Could other elderly persons in their surroundings die soon?
These are all tough questions, of course, but they have answers. We discussed openly about diseases, about the problems that age brings, about life expectancy, the risks to die in an accident or victim of a crime. Through these questions, acceptance was getting nearer. Death wasn’t trivialized, of course, but contextualized. An event that shocked by its unusual character at first became an unavoidable fact of life that one had to accept. To seek shelter in an abstract set of dogma never was necessary.
Of course grief would have been harder if death had struck closer to them. I’m aware of my luck, but am happy nevertheless that I could lay with them the foundation of an understanding (as much as is possible, anyway) of death – one that is sensible, delicate, wary of mysticism but seeking to showcase life in all its frail and unique beauty.