Humanistic Judaism, Fall 1973, pages 5-6
A brother dies. A child is traumatized.
What do you say? How do you explain death? Do you tell the child that death is unreal – that somewhere up in the sky her brother lives with lonely angels – that God, for some mysterious reason known only to God, has taken him away to live in a better world, free of care and pain?
Or do you tell the child that death is real – that her brother is now only a corpse in the ground – that he lives and breathes no more – and that she will never see him again?
The answer is quite simple. You tell her the truth.
The truth is that her brother is dead.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do not wish to affirm that telling the truth is some kind of absolute ethical principle which you never violate – regardless of consequences. A rational moral system is always based on the consequences of action. If, in the long run, lying to the child would make her a happier more fulfilled human being, would enable her to deal more effectively with the problems of life, I would recommend lying.
But fantasies about the afterlife do not help the child cope with the reality and meaning of her brother’s absence.
They do not help her cope with her own anger and her own sense of loss. Why would a good God, if there is one, take her brother away to live with angels when she needed him?
They do not help her cope with her own fear of dying. Going to Heaven to stay with God is a cold comfort if it means leaving behind the security of your home and your family.
They do not help her deal with her own sense of guilt. Why should her brother, who was such a good person, die while she survives?
They do not help her cope with her growing sense of the truth. Even little children – in a scientific age – know that the earth is not flat, that there is no Heaven up there. That plants and animals live, die and disintegrate. Even in a child’s mind the discrepancy is apparent and the answer unconvincing.
Children know what dying is. They see it around themselves all the time – even in the truncated nature of our urban environment. They do not need to be told that what they perceive is a fantasy. They need the reassurance that what they perceive is not horrible.
An obvious truth has to be proclaimed.
The quality of an answer does not depend on what you say. It depends on how you say it.
Most parents, when they discuss death are so up-tight, uncomfortable and unaccepting of reality, that no matter what they say, they end up doing the wrong thing.
When we speak our message it is not only with words. It is primarily our face and our body. Children learn more from our eyes than from our mouth. If they see fear in our eyes when we discuss death, they will assume that death is a fearful thing – no matter what ideology we proclaim. If they see serenity in our eyes, they will receive the communication that death is a natural and normal event.
Parents cannot help children accept death unless they themselves have first accepted death.
Very often the fantasies that parents sing for children are not intended to help children. They are intended to help the parents – who are too embarrassed to admit that the bobe miese is for them.
How then, should humanist parents answer the questions of children who have lost brothers and sisters?
They must first confront their own feelings about the loss of their own child. They cannot expect their other child to accept its reality if they don’t. They can only communicate what they truly feel. The eyes always betray the mouth.
They must tell the truth. Fantasies about the afterlife are, in the long run, neither helpful nor believable.
They must avoid pseudo-humanist answers. Telling a child that death is like sleep is dangerous. The child will imagine her brother trapped in a box under the earth. What if he should wake up?
They must inform their child (what their child already knows) that life comes to an end. Death is the absence of life. There is no sleeping, feeling, pain or pleasure. Her brother’s body, which has either been buried or burned, is not her brother anymore. Her brother ceased to exist when he died. He does not survive, in some crippled way, in a cemetery or in some urn of ashes.
They must assure her that she is healthy and that most young people do not die.
They must assure her that they are healthy and that they will not leave her. They must tell her that she is a good girl and that they are happy that she is well and alive.
Knowing the right things to say to humanist children will cease to be a problem when humanist parents deal with the child’s fears – without exclusively dealing with their own.