What happens when you die? For those with religious beliefs
How do you answer a child’s questions when you’re not sure of the answer yourself? After all, nobody one who had died has come back to tell us. We all have hopes, guesses, and desires. If your beliefs are firm and without doubt, then it should be easier for you.
First, you should explain the physical things. Tell children that when you die, your brain and body stop working, and you are no longer able to move or do physical things. The body no longer feels pleasure or pain, and the person that once existed inside it is gone. The dead are cremated or put in the ground to give their body back to the earth, since they no longer need it.
As for the spiritual side, the best way to answer this question is to give your child your own personal beliefs while keeping the answer open-ended and subject to conjecture or alteration.
If your beliefs are not firm or clear, you might say something like:
“When people die, I believe they go to heaven. (Insert your own beliefs here.) But nobody knows exactly what that is or what it’s like, since nobody who dies can come back and tell us. Some people think heaven is like a beautiful paradise where there is no pain and we can do whatever we want with people we’ve loved and lost. Or it might be less of a place and more a type of existence where you can be everything at once or where you can travel across the Universe just like space travelers. Scientists say there might be other dimensions all around us that we can’t see or feel, yet are so close to us they’re practically touching. Death might be like slipping your mind into one of these other dimensions, so that even though we can’t see or feel the person we lost, they might be closer than we could possibly imagine, kissing our cheeks when we go to bed at night and coming from a planet across the galaxy to watch our soccer game. What do you think?”
You should try to avoid giving children a rigid explanation, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s dishonest. Putting forth a rigid view of existence after death is like trying to pass off a biology book on dragons as factually accurate and truthful. The most the living can do is guess. Decades later your children will remember what you tell them now, and won’t appreciate the pompousness once they get old enough to know better. Moreover, pretending like you know precisely what happens shuts your child off emotionally. If they’ve experienced a death recently, they’ll be confused and uncertain JUST LIKE YOU. They’ll get more comfort by you being honest and relating to the confusion and mystery surrounding death than if you put up a confident arrogance. This is one situation where it’s okay as a parent not to have all the answers.
But most of all, the more rigid and inflexible your explanation (only Christians go to heaven; animals can’t have a soul), the greater the likelihood it will cause psychological turmoil for the child. For example, portraying “heaven” as a place far away where people in white robes sit next to Jesus and play harps all day may provide little comfort to a child who just lost her mom and desperately longs for some type of mental connection to her. She wants to know her lost parent might still be close by in spirit, not in some far away land taking music lessons. She wants to know that maybe, just maybe, her mom knows she hit a home run at her softball game the other day, or is close by in spirit at her saddest moments when she needs the spiritual connection most. By giving them a framework but leaving the mystery open, you allow them to work in the possibilities that are most comforting for them. Scores of caretakers have caused their children untold injury because they push a rigid, know-it-all view of post-death existence that eliminates the ideas a child finds most comforting.
By taking this open-ended approach, you can also collect your child’s input. This will give you a window into what they are thinking or feeling, what they wish for or what they fear. For children who just lost a loved one, this is valuable information that will help you comfort them in the grieving process.
What happens when you die? The Atheist Explanation:
If you’re an atheist or otherwise subscribe to the “death is the end of it all” theory, we would suggest loosening your views for the sake of your child. It might be true that heaven is dreamed up by people who are “scared of the dark,” as Stephen Hawking recently said, and it might be true that we live in a Godless universe that is little more than quarks and particles and random exchanges of atoms. Yet it’s also possible that there is more to our Universe than we imagine, and all our scientific knowledge has done little to resolve the question. After all, science has recently indicated that there might be a parallel Universe or an infinite multiverse. Einstein showed that time itself is relative – an illusion produced by speed and gravity. Experiments have since proven him correct. It’s an established fact that molecules on the quantum level can jump in and out of different dimensions, and scientists are now tinkering to create technology based on an aspect of quantum mechanics that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” This is a proven principle which states that one particle can form a connection with another (a trick known as quantum entanglement) and then go on to influence each other from halfway across the Universe without any physical connection, in defiance of all principles of known physics that we observe in the natural world.
So if it can be proven that time is an illusion, that quantum molecules have a tendency to hop in and out of dimensions, that the atoms we’re made out of have a knack for disappearing and reappearing at random while ignoring all established laws of physics, and that one particle can influence another from the other side of the galaxy as though some invisible telephone wire were intimately connecting the two, it’s safe to say that the possibility of some type of existence after death doesn’t seem so strange anymore. When you consider that our brains are essentially quantum computers – subject to the same strange time-traveling, dimension-jumping, spooky action at a distance entanglement – there’s plenty of room to be spiritual with your child without having to resort to dishonesty. When atheists try to say they know for certainty what happens after you die, they’re being just as arrogant and ignorant as the religious zealots who claim with certainty the opposite is true. So for your child’s sake, give them the science, and then explain that in such a strange and wonderful Universe such as ours, anything is possible.
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