I wrote this in response to a very touching article by a mother with terminal lung cancer. It’s a beautifully written article, and well worth reading. I totally get where she is coming from. Hiding the truth from children is a terrible idea. But her truth made me feel really sad:
(I initially put this in the comments under the article, which is why it speaks directly to the author. But then I wanted to share it with Darwin Harmless readers. To preserve my anonymity I decided to put it up here instead.)
This is such a difficult time for you, and a difficult subject. It takes a lot of courage to face it the way you do. And yet, you don’t face it at all as I would. You told your daughter your truth. But everybody’s “truth” is different.
You see, I am an atheist. I do not believe in an afterlife. And telling my children that I will be watching them from an invisible place is not a truth I can believe.
What I would tell my child is that time passes and things change. There will come a time when I am no longer here. I will not exist, except as a memory.
I might ask my child if they remember what it was like before they were born. Unless they engage in intense fantasy, they will recognize that they don’t know, they don’t remember. I will explain that they have no memory of that time because they didn’t exist yet. It will be the same for them after they are dead. They won’t exist. And I won’t exist after I am dead. There is nothing wrong with that. Nothing to fear. Not existing, which is the same as being dead, didn’t bother us before we were born. Why would it bother us after we die?
It is painful to live without somebody you have loved. I miss my father and mother terribly, and I miss friends who have died. But pretending they still exist just doesn’t work for me. It would be like losing an arm in an industrial accident, yet insisting that my arm still existed, only invisibly, in another place.
Everybody goes where they need to go to get comfortable with death. Our social norm is to deny that death really happens. For me, that is not accepting reality. That is not truth. I find reality is not all that terrible, if I just accept it. And I’m not going to pass on a belief in an afterlife, no matter how socially accepted or attractive, to my children as “truth”.
I’m okay with knowing that time passes and things change.