Last night during a pre-bedtime snuggle my 4 year old came out with an unexpected question- one I assumed was much father down the road.  This is how our conversation went:



“What happens when our story ends?”  At first I didn’t know what he meant so I had to ask more questions.

“What do you mean?  ‘When our story ends?'”

OUR story…”


At this point I was afraid my son was getting unusually deep with his questions.  Could he really be asking about our own mortality?  What happens when our story ends and we no longer exist?  Death is not a concept my son is familiar with from a first-hand perspective.  I was afraid to lead him into the question but at the same time I felt he deserved it answered if this was really what he wanted to know.  Judging by how he asked it and the silence that preceded the question it must have been in his head for a while.

“Do you mean what happens when we are no longer here?  In our world?”  (He often talks about the planet and our “world”, meaning our little life and circle of family/friends/activities)

“Yeah.  What happens?”

Deep.  Breath.  How in the world do I explain death to my 4 year old who has never lost anyone?  He knows things “die” from reading books and watching movies.  When it comes to our own deaths though, this requires a little more of an explanation.  And sadly, it is my responsibility to explain it to him the way our family believes it and not the way most of the world thinks of death.  It was then that I almost wished we were religious because telling a child death means going to a magical place full of angels and music and light is much better than what I told him.

“Nothing.  When our story ends it is over.  We get a certain amount of time here and then we are done.”

“How much time!?”

“Some people get a lot of time and live to be 60 or 80 or even 100!”

“Or zero” and he made a 0 with his little innocent hands.

“Yes, and sometimes 0.  Sometimes it ends sooner.  But sometimes we get to live a very long time and see and do a lot of things.”

“What about 5,500?”

“No… we can’t live to be 5,500.  If we are really lucky we can live to 100.  Maybe even a little longer, but that is it.”

“Awww…. I want to be REALLY old and be 5,500.”

That was it.  A short conversation with my 4 year old about life.  And death.  And not living to be 5,500 years old.  I am completely comfortable telling my son that there is a Santa Claus but I won’t be sharing about Heaven and Jesus, not yet anyway.  Not until he can understand that it is something others believe, and that there are other deities that exist as well.  If he then chooses to believe in a God then he can, and I’ll support that.  I just want it to be his choice and not one that was forced upon him.  For now we are happy to live religion free and to raise sons who are taught that being good is a lifestyle, not a chore to be rewarded.  It may not be the popular choice but it is our choice to make.  It is crazy to me that I have a little person capable of asking questions of this nature.  He is no longer a baby.  I’m sure there will be many more “deep” conversation to come, which is both a scary and exciting thought.


35 Responses

  1. Even as a Christian explaining death is very difficult. While were we believe we will go is beautiful there is still the idea that we will never see the person passing until we pass ourselves. My oldest has seen 3 family members pass in under four years and it took many conversations for him to understand. I think you did great explaining to your boy your beliefs without being scary at all.

    1. Thank you. We have yet to experience a loss in the family (thank goodness) so I’m thankful for that. He did learn of a stray kitten that died in our yard and we had a funeral for the cat. I don’t think he really understood that death was permanent because every so often he talks about the poor sick kitty and says he is better.

    2. I was about to say the same thing. My baby boy, Peter, died at birth 6 1/2 years ago and while I think my children understood it as we explained it, it was definitely not easy. It’s still very hard and I think it always will be. My oldest daughter and my other son really took it hard. My oldest daughter refused to talk about it and she got really mean and nasty, even making fun of me when I cried or had difficult days. And I think most of my days were difficult for the first two years. My son was 2 1/2 at the time his baby brother died and while he didn’t understand the whole funeral thing, he became very sad afterward and would cry and hold his brother’s picture and call his name. Losing my baby boy shook me and my Christian beliefs to the core. I’m not to the point where I trust God like I once used to and it takes a lot of very regular church attendance and associating with other strong believers for me to stay afloat but I do think I will get there some day. I also wanted to say I think you did a good job not making your beliefs scary for your son.

      1. I’m so sorry for your loss and just reading your words broke my heart. I hope your family has found some bit of peace although I’m sure there are good days and bad days.

  2. I am an atheist and I love you for this! My son (through some tv show or another while at my Mothers, veggie tales, I think ) was exposed to the concept of God and He knows I dont believe this and that other people do. He knows that some people believe things that they read in books, and that I dont. He is 7 and I as a like minded person comend you for not lying to your child.

  3. Our LO isn’t asking questions yet, but we are also non-religious and have discussed how we might handle it when these questions inevitably arise. We certainly don’t want to lie to her, but the truth is hard too. It is hard to tell a child about death. I think you did a great job, though, being truthful but also giving a response that wasn’t too scary or complicated.

  4. You have no idea what a relief it was for me to read this post– not so much from the point of view of how to address death with a child, but because it had seemed like most if not all the parenting blogs I read are written by devout Christians, which gets depressing to read after a while as a nonbeliever.

    I haven’t yet had to come face to face with those kinds of questions yet, since our only child so far is only 7 months old, but I know it’s coming one day, so I’ve done some thinking about it. I would like to take the approach to religion that we’ll only discuss it if and when he asks us, or bring it up when he’s old enough to understand the difference between what we believe and what others believe, but given that my parents are very religious and we see them frequently, I have a feeling he’ll at least hear of God and Jesus early on.

    I think you handled this question well– honest, but not harsh.

    1. Thank you. Part of the reason I posted this was a small “coming out” party as an atheist. I’m not hiding this fact however it just doesn’t come up here. Like you I noticed most bloggers are Christian and while that doesn’t bother me I do think it makes us non believers feel even more alone at times. My grandparents do not know my atheist status and with them being so close to me I haven’t told them for fear of breaking their heart. They just wouldn’t/couldn’t understand. We had an uncomfortable situation once where Fletcher, younger then, saw her Jesus doll and asked who that man was. She was taken aback that he didn’t know but I just laughed it off as him being confused and changed the subject. I’m not ashamed of our family’s non belief but when it comes to my grandparents I am OK with making a lie of omission.

      1. I have a similar situation with my parents. I know how much it would devastate my parents if we told them that we’re atheist, and while it’s extremely uncomfortable having to hide it, so far we’ve just avoided discussing it with them. It’s not a great solution, and I have a feeling that someday it’ll come out, but for now we just make do.

        1. I understand your question and I guess we are “teaching” him there is no afterlife. Technically we are atheists (husband and I) and so we do not believe in any god(s). As a parent whether you are or aren’t religious you influence your child’s beliefs even if you don’t intend to. When the time is right they will be introduced to other religions but they will know we lack one. And of they choose one someday they will at least know enough about each one to make a decision.

  5. Your answer to your son was honest and appropriate. No need to go in depth more than you have to at this age. Omitting part of the reality is sometimes necessary.
    My 4 year old often asks what happens when mommy and daddy are gone. He went through a phase where we were asked daily about what happens when we die. Our simple and honest answer to him is this, “Well I hope that you never have to live a day without us, but if something happens to us, then you will go stay with grandma and grandpa, or Uncle Ben & Aunt Sarah.” Sadly, my son know what a cemetery is and why people are there. My nephew passed away at birth a year before my son was born. We make it a point that we don’t hide the cemetery from him but he doesn’t exactly know who we are going to see there. For now we just tell him it’s grandma’s friend that is in the ground because their time on our planet was over. He knows that his great grandma is very sick and that she could die. He knows that when you die you go to the cemetery and that’s where you are for ever, you may be old when you go there or you could be young. He’s ok with that. Conversations that I wish I didn’t have to have with him when he was 3 and even now that he’s 4 but it is what it is I suppose.

  6. I am glad your 4 year old can think such deep things and you guys have a comfortable conversation with no one feeling awkward!:) I do wonder though about your comment of being non-religious. I don’t know that it is possible to have no religion at all. If I teach my child about Allah, or God, or re-incarnation or atheism and no life after death each of those is still a religion and belief system. So I am wondering how teaching your son atheism and no life after death can be non-religious since that what you believe about religion? Aren’t you putting your beliefs on him?

    -Just a little confused:) We are going to be parents soon and I am not exactly looking forward to all the hard questions our little one will ask! Ah, the joys of parenthood!

  7. I am so glad to read this post. I often get shamed or snubbed for raising a child without religious beliefs. I have been an atheist ever since I staged a walk out on our Catholic Church. I think people can still have morals and be good without having to involve god and religion. I will not teach my son religion, but I will let him decide if that’s something he wants as part of his life. I will simply teach him to be kind, generous, thoughtful, and an overall good person.

  8. I’d like to think I would approach this slightly differently.

    Your son asked what happens at the end of “our” story, so use a story book. Think of his favorite story – maybe “Good Night Moon” or “Little Red Riding Hood”. When he is finished reading the book, does he just forget the story? Does he forget the character’s names and what they did? No… he talks about it. He tells his brother, his friend, his mommy and his daddy. When he is older, he will share that story with his kids. Eventually, the book will break and can’t be used anymore. He won’t be able to read from that story book, but he can still tell the story from his memory. So the story never really ends… he’s just not reading it from a book anymore.

    I grew up being exposed and educated in multiple religions and cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism, which really emphasize the responsibility of the individual throughout life rather than a commitment to the Church. I really enjoyed how I was raised, exposure-wise, so I would like to do that with my son.

    When I’ve been attacked for my beliefs, I like to tell people that atheists aren’t good-for-nothing, but they are good, for nothing. Just because Christ isn’t a part of my beliefs doesn’t mean I am inherently a bad person with no morals or ethics.

  9. This was a good post. We have had a lot of loss lately in our home with our pets and we too do not practice a religion. I just let my kids know the positive things we have shared while we are here on this earth and just mention that they will no longer be with us any longer. It is a tough subject but to me, honestly is the way I like to approach it.

  10. thanks for sharing this! I would consider myself agnostic- i don’t believe in any specific god, but I do feel like there is something beyond the physical connecting us all, and it seems to me that every religion is just finding a way of explaining that unexplainable connection. I was raised Catholic but it never “fit” and it has taken me awhile to get comfortable where I am (and for my family as well!). My son is 20 months so no conversations like this yet, but it is so helpful to hear your experiences and how you handled it. I think as adults we often forget that the simple answer is the easiest, and that we are the ones who have stress and anxiety tied to it and read too much into it, not the children. I definitely want to encourage open conversation like this, so as their understanding of the world becomes more complex, we have a foundation of trust and honesty and our conversations can get more complex. I think you are doing a fantastic job! And I agree with others, thanks for being so frank about your beliefs- it’s wonderful to have that balance and connection 🙂

  11. I think you handled this beautifully. You answered honestly according to what you believe and were age appropriate. I was raised Christian and churchy (if that makes sense) and even though I hold on to certain things from that experience I still find it hard talking to my kids about God and my beliefs. I don’t look forward to these hard questions but had to applaud your mama moment. Good job!

  12. I think you handled it well. I like the phrase “good for goodness sake” and will use it when people throw the “but where will they get their morals” line at me.

  13. I love this!!! I was a little… Well, anxious that I would be reading about angels and Jesus… We are not religious either and I feel the exact same way you do. This was a very refreshing read for me!!!

  14. I totally agree that you should tell him what your family’s belief’s are, what I don’t understand is why the “sadly” heading into the sentence, after all, we were nothing before we came into the world and we were ok (have you read Epicurus?)

    1. Only because the “Heaven” answer is so much more pleasant and in my eyes, more kid friendly. Like telling a child their hamster died and is now in hmater heaven with all you can eat food and hamster balls. As a child this is a much better answer than telling them they are now in a cardboard box in the ground. The End.

  15. I am also a secular humanist (ie: Atheist) and agree that it would be easier to say that we go to a magical place, but I guess that’s why some (some, not all) people believe. It’s easier and more pleasant. I handle it much the same way you did.our time is finite so live life to the fullest and make it count 🙂

    1. Easier and more pleasant? What a shallow understanding of Christianity you have. There have been and still are people around the world who die for their beliefs in that “magical place”. I am horrified at how ignorant and judgmental some of the posters here are.

  16. I think you handled this well and am thankful that there are moms out there who don’t feel the need to lie to their kids. Or tell them what “we” believe. I got that (from teachers at my religious school) all the time growing up and I never did believe what they did.

  17. Love this Kim! As a blogger I’ve been too chicken to take on this topic. Thought about it many times, but always back down. It’s so easy to feel alone being an Atheist in a religious world. My girls have asked me this question a few times. It’s hard with us because my husband has switched over to Christianity in the past couple of years so our views are greatly different. That being said, I don’t feel it’s wrong to tell them my views as well as their father’s views at the same time. When my girls asked what happened when we die I simply stated that we don’t really know. Some people like Grandma and Daddy believe that we go to Heaven. There are others like myself that believe that life just ends. I told her that it’s up to her to believe what she wants to and what she believes might change over the years. As of now she chooses to believe in God and Heaven and I’m fine with that.

  18. WHEW. Good answers. That is the way our family believes it too, and dammit if that doesn’t make it a lot more anxiety-provoking to even THINK about explaining to my kids. Thanks so much for sharing – I needed to hear this simple story.

  19. I love the way you handled such a delicate subject. My son is only 20 months but I have spent a lot of time considering how to answer questions like this when they do come up. It’s refreshing to see this from the perspective of another aetheist when so often you read of parents telling their children about God and heaven when the topic of death comes up.

  20. I actually really like the way you responded. I also intend to educate my kids about what their options are with regard to religion, and allow them to make their own choices. It seems there are a lot of people out there who just don’t understand the “good for goodness sake” mentality. Why should we only be good because we fear hell? Why not be good because it is simply the nicest way to live one’s life? Didn’t Phoebe learn on Friends that there are no truly selfless acts? I’m not ashamed to admit it feels good to do things for others.

  21. I have no idea where I found it, but I read article about answering the question they ask, rather than explaining the whole topic. I though you did a great job of that with him.
    My almost four year old just asked how babies are made and was happy with mama’s egg and daddy’s sperm get together and make a baby cell that makes lots more baby cells, then baby is born. He loves cells. Then asked how Beluga whales are made.

  22. What do you mean you raise your sons in a secular way so they are good for goodness sake? That is the very core of Christianity (and many other religious or philosophical beliefs), To follow Christ is to follow the path of LOVE, the very definition of goodness for goodness sake. Christianity is not about angels and heavenly choirs waiting in heaven. And no I myself am not a devout Christian, I just actually read before I form my own opinions. You have a very shallow understanding of religion, and I’m guessing great philosophers or other religious systems are also on that plane.
    I too raise my kids in sort of open minded way, but when I was first faced with almost an identical question from my son I stuck to true open-mindedness unlike you who maybe subconsciously but ARE forcing your atheism on your child and worse yet your judgement of other people’s religious beliefs. I told my son that NO ONE KNOWS what happens after we die but people believe many different things and we actually had a very interesting conversation about it. I think the most important part of it was that I could see my son keeping that open non-judgmental outlook on people and their beliefs about afterlife. Three years later his closest buddies are the children of atheists, Muslims Hindu and Catholics.
    You in your post made Christian beliefs about afterlife sound kind of silly, stupid and weird (“magical place”?), where in reality they are very complex, rich and for many people – profound. I never considered this blog to be the most intellectually deep virtual space but you have truly reached a new low.

    1. don’t agree with this at all. what i understood is that you don’t want your children to believe just because they were indoctrinated from birth. Being good for goodness sake means being a good moral person because that’s who you are, not because you’re afraid about hell. I don’t think anything you said makes the afterlife sound silly and of course your children are more likely to be atheist if you are yourself. That’s unavoidable. I’ll likely tell my children about all the things others believe in but they’re likely to ask what I believe in and I’ll just have to tell them the truth. I think most atheists believe in being “christian”- ie good, moral people, they just don’t buy the adam and eve or the whole organized religion machine/bureaucracy. This poster’s reply with “I just actually read before I form my own opinions. You have a very shallow understanding of religion…” is judgmental and the opposite of what I would call being “Christian”. Kim’s point is that you don’t have to believe in god to be a good person, and i would say not teaching your children about god or jesus doesn’t make you a bad person.

  23. So many bloggers I read are overtly Christian, and I find that reading about their beliefs makes me very uncomfortable when I really just want to read about diapers! Thanks for being brave and being a great role model for those of us who want to raise conscientious, good, thoughtful, curious people without bringing organized religion into things. My parents wanted me to understand the Judeo-Christian worldview that permeates so much of modern Western culture, and I agree that it’s important, but teaching those stories for what they are – stories – strikes me as the best way to be honest with our offspring.

  24. I think you handled the conversation beautifully! It’s a hard conversation to have, and I think you answered it perfectly. He’ll learn about religion in due time, and he’ll decide if it’s something he’s interested in/not interested in, when he’s old enough to understand what he’s learning. Until then, he’ll just be a kid…. and that’s exactly what he should be! 🙂 Kudos!

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