Our 6-yr-old is distressed by the notion of death and the sun exploding and destroying life on earth

Feb 3, 2013

Discussion by: Bert Cappelle
I’m looking for some comforting words to tell our 6-year old son. We don’t believe in an afterlife and don’t want our children to believe in this either. (We do allow him to believe in Sinterklaas, a close Belgian/Dutch/… relative of Santa Claus, but that’s rather beside the issue.) Our son can get really emotional, shedding hot tears, when he is confronted — or confronts himself — with the realization that his so far happy life will inevitably come to an end. He’s also recently been to a science museum where he heard that the sun will explode. While we explained to him that the latter won’t happen any time soon, he understandably finds it too hard to swallow that not only will he die but that the entire world will be destroyed, wiping out all life on earth. In his words: “So by then, we’ll have been dead for longer than we’ll have been alive.” That’s a very sobering thought for such a young child. What we think he needs is some of the reassurance that the stories of old (about heaven and eternity) could offer children in the past. What could we tell him?

50 comments on “Our 6-yr-old is distressed by the notion of death and the sun exploding and destroying life on earth

  • 2
    tardisride says:

    I remember as a kid that the concept of heaven wasn’t all that comforting when I went through my death-is-scary time. I was afraid of death itself. Two things my family said to calm me down had an effect, and I’m not sure why or whether they will help you. The first was that animals are not afraid of death. We had pets, so it was an easy cuddly reference to say that when it is their time, when they are very old, they just lie down and relax because it is part of life and they know they will just go to sleep. The second was a reference to some famous people who had died–artists, musicians–who had left amazing things behind. This came from my grandmother, who said that we are each contributing to this giant tapestry, and once we’ve made our contribution we must make room for someone else to make theirs. I realize this doesn’t address the fear of a cataclysmic event, and I’m not sure what would.

    Report abuse

  • Hmmm. Perhaps you could tell him that his body is made up of little tiny parts called atoms, and each of those atoms came from an exploding star. In fact, all the things he can see and touch are made up of atoms. The atoms in his body right now may have once been a part of a leaf, or a tree, or a rock, or maybe his favorite animal. Some of them have been a part of the sea, and some of them have been a part of a cloud. As he grows, he will get some new ones. Some of the ones he has right now will go on to be a part of something else, even while he is still alive. And some day, a long long time from now, those atoms that construct everything he sees may travel through space and become part of another world and the things that live on that other world.

    It might help if you build something out of blocks or legos to show that all the little parts together make something bigger. Remove one part and put something else in its place, and show that the big thing is still the same. Then you can explain that atoms do the same thing – they’re like very very tiny building blocks.

    There are, of course, other factors in this, like proton decay, but he won’t understand that and probably doesn’t need to know that either. But perhaps he would find comfort in the idea of the building blocks of everything going on for a long time.

    Report abuse

  • May I recommend The Magic of Reality, by RD? It may be a little bit “above him” (i.e. your son), but I think if you read it together and explain what the various ideas contained in it are (better yet, go out into nature and explore these ideas with your son), he will not only grasp many of the concepts in it, but also enjoy looking at the many stunning images included. Reading the e-book version of it also comes with all kinds of cools apps that he can enjoy.

    There’s a wonderful but oldish movie called Butterfly’s Tongue (La lengua de las mariposas, in the original Spanish) that deals with a little boy and his education in all things scientific. It’s not a movie for kids to watch (there are some raunchy scenes), but it might give you some ideas about how to explore science with your son (there’s also some interesting commentary about reason; ideology; faith and the Spanish Civil War). It’s a fantastic movie that should be required watching for any secularist — especially one with a young child!

    Report abuse

  • We tend to forget that kids take everything very literally and imagine that things are going to happen in the near future. Climate change is another unsettling prospect to young kids , especially when accompanied by graphic drawings of a desert landscape. Somehow we have to soften the reality without resorting to deception.

    I thought KimProbable’s explanation was a good one and would like to add the perspective that my own parents gave when I showed concern. They used to emphase that these things (like their own deaths) were going to happen a long, long time in the future. They also assured me that they intended to live to 100 and they were not that far off as it transpired.
    To a 6 yr old , a day is a long time, and waiting for birthdays & Xmas takes an eternity. So, telling them that you intend to live till 100 is beyond the realms of their imaginings.

    I sympathise with your parental dilemma particularly when it applies to a highly sensitive child.

    Report abuse

  • 6
    mmurray says:

    There are a bunch of books available and I’ve seen Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion highly recommended around here. I haven’t read it myself. With my kids I just emphasised that dying was a long way off and their mum and I dying was a long way off. That seemed to be enough. I never got a query about the sun exploding. The internet was younger then so things where harder to find! I guess I would have talked about the human race expanding across the universe well before the sun exploded.


    Report abuse

  • 7
    SurLaffaLot says:

    This may be completely useless to you, Bert, but I see the human condition after life, as it was before life. Our knowledge, pain, hopes and fears etc. before we were born, will return again after we die. We will be gone, without any existence in which we can be sad, or feel loss or any such thing.

    Take time to think about how your mind and consciousness were before you were born. There should be nothing that you can bring to mind, it is a non-existence. You simply were NOT. I expect death to be the same.

    It is the process of getting from life to death, which may scare any one of us. I would avoid* dying *as a topic, unless your child gets curious about that too.

    Report abuse

  • 8
    zengardener says:

    He will live longer than he can possibly imagine. By then, he will be so tired, he will want to sleep forever anyway.

    He’s six, get him something important to worry about. Ice cream,

    Report abuse

  • 10
    BornAfterTV says:

    Easy. Talk about/probe how he felt and what he was thinking before he was born, that’s what it’s going to be like when you die. There is nothing to fear except to waste life with fear.

    Report abuse

  • 11
    Jos Gibbons says:

    It didn’t bother him that he was “dead” for billions of years before his conception. Also, the end of life on Earth is expected to come a lot sooner than the Sun’s explosion, due to how hot Earth will be in a billion years’ time (although, when people make that argument, I wonder why they doubt the possibly gradual evolution of sufficient thermophilia in living organisms).

    Report abuse

  • 12
    whiteraven says:

    It strikes me as somehow a bit peculiar to be reading here that there are things that you do or do not “allow” your child to believe in, if you see what I mean. Perhaps the fact that you allow him to believe in one fantasy (that you know he will outgrow) suggests that there are some things where the harsh realities of life and the secular beliefs you subscribe to do not need to be forced upon him if they cause so much distress? Why is he being “confronted” with his own mortality? If you tell me the sun will explode sometime so far in the future there’s nothing to worry about, can’t I conclude, even if only subconsciously, that there must then be other things similarly inevitable or beyond control and unknown to me that are equally terrifying and which may occur at any time? It just seems to me incongruous to have a child believe in Santa Claus and yet expect him to have the ability to confront the mortality of his parents and himself, as well as the vaporization of Earth and all life upon it. Perhaps it would be more reassuring to explain that the human species will have become extinct long before the sun explodes? A secular fairy tale about traveling to other planets, star systems or galaxies might be a good distraction: We’ll all move to Europa as things gradually warm up, it’s ice will melt to create oceans like on earth, land masses will be revealed from beneath the ice, etc., and we’ll have plenty of time to prepare a planet around some other, younger star nearby and so on.

    I think one needs to tailor the truth to the age, emotional and intellectual maturity of the child and would choose some benign and short term deceptions over the chance of neurotic anxiety. Being constituted of “stardust” is wonderful and poetic, but I would doubt that the prospect of being converted into is going to be particularly reassuring.

    Report abuse

  • 13
    Reckless Monkey says:

    Explain to him that the stuff he is made of comes from other stars that needed to blow up to give him life, that in time the gas and dust from our Sun will contribute its matter to our galaxy giving other stars the chance to be born possibly with some life forms that may one day in the distant future be capable of worrying about what will happen to their star. Explain that his life is a continuation of the life on this earth all related from the simplest most ancient creature to all the organisms that exist today, that they are us and we are them, just different patterns of the same life that started all that time ago because stars died.

    Report abuse

  • 14
    QuestioningKat says:

    When I was that age, I was really terrified of skeletons. Worse yet I knew one was inside of me and I could feel it. Having many relatives that died over the few years I was alive, I knew the permanence of death. I also feared worms because I knew they would eventually eat my body. This is the age when kids seem to start getting nightmares and worrying. It’s tough being so little surrounded by big scarey stuff.

    Help him find something that can help bring him joy or success that he can control.A hobby or activity would be good. Don’t gloss over the idea of death, help him to cherish life and give reverence when death to animals or people occur.

    (I also recall that little prayer “if I die before I wake…I pray the Lord my soul to take.) It just terrified me, so did the idea of Limbo.

    Report abuse

  • 15
    Pauly01 says:

    The obvious thing to say is that the sun might never explode , it will probably expand and contract. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    I remember when I was a child any time I got a gash or a cut I would cry to my brother , asking him am I going to die.

    I also remember the day it dawned on me that I was going to die , I was 9. There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it , short of warm comfort and telling him that it won’t be for a very long time.He will eventually ride it out.

    Report abuse

  • 16
    vergil says:

    I like the point that other stars exploded to give us life (atoms).
    If he still doesn’t like it, then you might want to mention how humans would hopefully be colonizing other stars long before our sun explodes.
    Or perhaps, in the realm of science fiction, watch the movie “Sunshine” by Danny Boyle, where a bunch of astronauts save the sun from collapse.
    Good luck and have a nice day 🙂

    Report abuse

  • 17
    crookedshoes says:

    I always let my kids know that lots and lots of things COULD happen; but most of them won’t. That always seemed to help one of my kids, but did not really help the other. Try it and let us know.

    Report abuse

  • 18
    Ornicar says:
    • The sun will explode in 5 billion years.
    • WHAT !!!!
    • The sun will explode in 5 billion years.
    • Ah. Ok. Thanks goodness. I thought you had said “5 million”

    Report abuse

  • 19
    Bert Cappelle says:

    Thank you all so very much for your helpful suggestions. I’ll mull them over and am sure some of this will make my son feel more at ease. I’ll let you know!

    Report abuse

  • 20
    Alan4discussion says:

    He’s also recently been to a science museum where he heard that the sun will explode. While we explained to him that the latter won’t happen any time soon, he understandably finds it too hard to swallow that not only will he die but that the entire world will be destroyed, wiping out all life on earth.

    Suggest a career as a space engineer. There are other planets and moons around. Some of the ones in the Solar-System may develop a climate more habitable by humans, when the Sun heats up a bit.

    Meanwhile, let’s worry about the idiots who are trying to destroy the habitability of the Earth, in the immediate coming centuries!

    Regarding children learning about death and grieving, I would suggest some pets. Stick insects, hamsters and gerbils are fairly short lived. It prepares the way for when they have to cope with losing elderly relatives, or others in accidents.

    Report abuse

  • 21
    tigerlily55 says:

    Please don’t tell your child that dying is just going to sleep. This might bring up a whole host of new fears. It’s also dishonest to tell them the parents/grandparents won’t die soon. If you or a friend dies or a brother or sister dies this may only bring up more fears in addition to feeling like you deceived them.

    I was afraid of dying into adulthood because I couldn’t cope with the idea of hanging around in eternity and looking back on my life. When I became an atheist I was relieved to conclude there was no afterlife to worry about.

    If you haven’t yet, ask the child what they think happens when you die. What feelings come up? What does the child think is the worst thing that might happen? You may be able to tap into what the child’s deepest fear is. Perhaps you’ve seen a dead animal or plant or tree to talk about what happens when things die.

    Yes, I’m told that “Parenting Beyond Belief” has a section on death. I found a website associated with the book. Here is one post about death. http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/parents/?p=168

    Not sure how to bring in the sun exploding. You could also go to Hemant Mehta’s Friendly Atheist blog Click on Dear Richard. A retired psychologist answers reader’s questions. If you wrote in to him, I’m sure you’d get a thoughtful answer.

    Report abuse

  • 22
    Nigel S says:

    If death (by aging, anyway) is still an issue by the time your son is 90, it is exactly this fatalistic attitude that is the reason for it. Tell him his generation is the one which need say enough is enough! There’s absolutely no reason why science can’t solve this if we put some real effort into it, and it starts by not being in denial about death, or even worse; so damn accepting about it, as many non-believers are. Even for those who fail, it’s better to die trying.

    The sun exploding is no threat at all. We’ll be either extinct, or we’ll still be around after FIVE BILLION years of technological development! We’ll have gone intergalactic a long time ago, and we can probably create and extinguish suns as nobody’s business anyway.

    Report abuse

  • 23
    Shubham Shubhra says:

    I am a new user to this forum and I am only 23 years old. I am an electronics engineer and at the age of 7 I heard lots of ghost stories in my class from fellow students that made me very paranoid. My mother asked me to pray to Hanuman (a Hindu deity who fights against ghosts and demons). I did it for a few weeks and I slept peacefully for some time until I realized how stupid the notion of ghosts and a ghost-busting God altogether was. I never prayed again though I did sleep rather peacefully.

    My answer to your problem is this. Tell your son that in comparison to almost all other animals except Turtles that outlive us each of us have an average life expectancy of about 80+ years. This amount of time is enough to be happy and sad, to learn and play. Tell him death comes naturally. tell him this that for the foreseeable future you are there for him.
    I remember I used to fight with my grandpa who said my father would eventually be as old as he is and have gray hair and would become bald and weak. It is natural for kids to be afraid of death. Tell him not to be afraid of dying, tell him to be more afraid of not having lived this life and worrying about death instead.
    Tell him the stories of people whose contributions have been significant in the fields of science, arts, literature and music. Tell him that even though we die we influence the lives of others and that influence, that memory lives on forever.

    Report abuse

  • 24
    Shubham Shubhra says:

    Also the Sun exploding question. Tell him that scientists are working on a way to transfer life from our planet to other suitable habitat if ours developed problems or if our sun exploded the human race might have a chance of survival.

    Report abuse

  • 25
    phil rimmer says:

    What he believes is his choice.

    What my father told me in different ways and at different times throughout his life is a story that amounted to this-

    Life started in a slimy soup (nowadays we might talk about hydrothermal vents, whatever.) It wasn’t much fun. But dying made change possible and things could get better. Slowly at first as the slime became little flapping things, then bigger flapping things with eyes..(etc. etc.)..We got to mammals and then apes that were pretty clever and most definitely knew how to have a good time. But for their offspring and their offspring to have an even better time, they had to stop doing the same old stuff and make way for new ideas and new knowledge and new adventures.

    We don’t live in soup now but an astonishing world gifted to us by an unbroken chain of well wishers, who came to know that they would have to bow out if the great adventure was to continue.

    And who is the lucky one? When I was young, it was me, and now much older, I find it is me again. Being part of this accumulating relay race is worth every bit of its entry price.

    In his very last few days, in the hospital, my dad (an atheist) reminded me of this narrative of his, but he left off the thought about who was the lucky one. I thanked him, counting myself the luckiest to have been gifted this best seat yet to watch our shared adventure. With kids of my own and their clever friends I now understand why he thanked me back.

    Report abuse

  • 26
    DavidXanaos says:

    Tell him that thanks to technological progress and it being exponentially faster he has a very realistic chance to live within his natural life span long enough to experience a time where with modern medical procedures his life could be prolonged indefinitely as long as he wants. Or that he will be able to download his contentiousness in to the Google cloud before dying.

    And also that long before the sun explodes we will most likely have the technology to send backups of our minds to other solar systems and start there all over again.

    I actually believe that is within the grasp of our younger generations, when you think what we head 10 years ago in therms of organ replacement and what we have today, like 3d bio printers on the rise, etc. I think its indeed realistic.

    Report abuse

  • 27
    hellosnackbar says:

    Just tell him that this future event will not occur for billions of years.
    By which time science will have created inter stellar travel.
    Michio Kaku has a theory of civilised development
    We are currently at grade 0!
    Grade 1 is when we are able to effect inter stellar travel.
    Grade 2 is when we can control the galaxy.
    Grade 3 is when we can control the universe.
    A philosophy of massive optimism ; but nevertheless a philosophy much more positive and exciting than primitive belief in DOG and various grades of godma.

    Report abuse

  • We don’t believe in an afterlife and don’t want our children to believe in this either.

    You may not believe in an afterlife – that’s fine. But “don’t want our children to…” – I thought the idea was that they would eventually be able to make up their own minds.

    Report abuse

  • The sun won’t explode, it will slowly expand into a red giant, engulfing the earth.
    But it will expand so slowly that conditions on earth will become very slowly less livable. No-one will die directly from an expanding sun, they will just have fewer children due to smaller livable area and the population will decrease to zero over time.

    However, this is so far in the future that there wouldn’t be humans anyway, they will have become one or more new species which we will have very little in common with.

    Report abuse

  • 30
    DocWebster says:

    Tell him to stick out his tongue and put a finger from each hand on it. Now tell him there’s a very good chance that the atoms from all three came from different stars that exploded longer before our sun formed than humans have existed in any form. You can also tell him that every time he drinks a glass of water he gets a few molecules of water that a dinosaur peed out. If that doesn’t set him off to ponder nothing will.

    Report abuse

  • 31
    QuestioningKat says:

    is distressed by the notion of death and the sun exploding and destroying life on earth

    I had a realization over the last day. I recall my mother needing to reassure me that the world was not going to end during my lifetime. Why? because some crazy religious zealots back in the late sixties or early 70s (not sure) claimed that the world was going to end.

    Report abuse

  • I would make him reflect/think on his unborn state. Does he has any worry about it? Chances are he would not. Then I’ll go on to (nearly) prove that death is nothing but a return to your unborn state. Voila!!!

    Report abuse

  • 33
    Uriel-238 says:

    Fear of death is a natural part of being human (all those who didn’t fear for their survival died out millennia ago.) Being frightened of dying is generally a good thing, and what might be reassuring to your son is that you fear death as well.

    What is dysfunctional is when our fears of unlikely hazards cause us to fail to acknowledge fears of likely hazards. (A recent, topical example is the continued uproar over the Newtown massacre. Even with school shootings, children are ten times as likely to be killed in car wrecks then they are by firearms.) Your son is most likely going to die from stroke or heart disease — the kinds of ailments that plague old men — than a spectacular world ending scenario such as ecology collapse or an asteroid impact.

    But the scary parts of the world are not a thing you have to hide from children, or assure them that your defenses are impenetrable by such things. The world has always been dangerous, and part of growing up is accepting this and by learning how to not die, learning how to live.

    EDIT: closed a parenthetical phrase.

    Report abuse

  • 34
    KimCox says:

    In reply to #9 by zengardener:

    Outstanding. Have you read ‘Atom’ by Laurence Krauss?

    I haven’t! I’ll have a look for it. Thanks for the recommendation. =)

    Report abuse

  • 35
    Claudiu says:

    You should let your children choose for themselves, what they want to believe in. And humanity doesn’t have to end with the sun ending life on earth, if we develop distant space travel. Rather, it is the near future that threatens our existence. If you want to look for an apocalypse, look rather at Hawking’s End of Physics.

    By the way, is it just me who think of Dawkins and Hawking as two of our illustrious scientists? I wonder if they ever met!

    Report abuse

  • 36
    odalrich says:

    Teaching a 6 year old child that his “so far comfortable life will inevitably come to an end” and that the “explosion of the sun will destroy life on Earth” is like putting the cart before the horse. You don’t teach this to a 6 year-old, as you don’t take him to the cinema to see Hollywood-made disaster films. This child is suffering from anxiety. The normal thing at this early age is to teach him basic astronomy. I don’t understand either his fear to death unless someone is trying to manipulate him- perhaps some religious zealot at his school. In any case, I don’t think that teaching death and universal destruction to a 6 year old is the appropiate stuff. You have delivered him from the horrors of religion, but you haven’t spared him the horrors of Nature and real life; he’s too young to assimilate this.

    Report abuse

  • 37
    Pauly01 says:

    You don’t understand a fear of death? I understand it.

    Everyone is different I guess:)

    In reply to #36 by Odalrich:

    I don’t understand either his fear to death unless someone is trying to manipulate him- perhaps some religious zealot at his school.

    Report abuse

  • 39
    richard20dawkinb13 says:

    Teach him that the only control he has is over himself, and go from there. So if he’s worried about things he has no control over it’s pointless to worry. Like the sun exploding or a meteor strike. You could go even further and say he could actually stop an asteroid from hitting earth, he would have to learn how. Design an asteroid smasher or mover. Something like that.

    Report abuse

  • 40
    odalrich says:

    In reply to #37 by Pauly01:

    You don’t understand a fear of death? I understand it.Everyone is different I guess:)In reply to #36 by Odalrich:I don’t understand either his fear to death unless someone is trying to manipulate him- perhaps some religious zealot at his school.

    In reply to #37 by Pauly01:

    We all fear death, of course, but you’ll agree with me that it isn’t normal for a 6 year old boy to be obsessed by it.

    You don’t understand a fear of death? I understand it.Everyone is different I guess:)In reply to #36 by Odalrich:I don’t understand either his fear to death unless someone is trying to manipulate him- perhaps some religious zealot at his school.

    Report abuse

  • 41
    genuflect says:

    I would continue to nurture your childs curiosity in the natural world. Museums are great for that. I’m not sure there is a cure for fear of dying – this is a fear that sits latent and springs it’s ugly head intermittently throughout life. By experiencing this anxiety at a young age your son can better congnitively adapt to this emotion in the future.

    For those of you that advocate that a child should be allowed to”make up their own mind” I have a few ideas to ponder. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of evidence that humans have developmental programs/instincts for religiousity. As we press into the future most of the users on this forum concur that these instincts do not promote the common good and that, instead, we should advocate reason and science as driving forces for human cultural/technological evolution. The Devil is in the details here though. We are all products of nurture via nature or nature via nuture. It may be that developing a scientific cultural frame of mind is innately more difficult than a religious one. And even if this weren’t so why should we pretend that there is a choice anyhow? Ultimately there is no real choice- only causes and effects. Choice is a mirrage. So why not inculcate our children in ways that ultimately serve the common good?

    Report abuse

  • 42
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #41 by genuflect:

    Choice is a mirrage. So why not inculcate our children in ways that ultimately serve the common good?

    Because you will make a very poor guess at what that may be in the years to come. They will know more than you as you know more than your antecedents. You serve us all and them best if you promote simply the best education for them, critical thinking skills, an understanding of where to find, test and use evidence and leave the inculcation part out of the picture entirely.

    The educated have a wealth of choices. That is what education is all about.

    Inculcation is cultural atrophy.

    Report abuse

  • When I was very young my father often upset me by telling me what an unhappy place the world really was. I suppose he felt it was for the best. He believed that life was pain and we were born to suffer and the sooner I came to except that bitter reality the better. But although he did not believe in an afterlife my father would not flat out deny the possibility. If I wanted to believe in heaven he’d let me and for that I’m grateful. At the age of seven too much reality would have crushed me.

    Your son only 6 years old. Would it really be so bad to allow him a little childhood fantasy? If it makes him feel better why not let him believe in an afterlife? I don’t think doing so will destroy his mind or transform him into a religious fanatic. You ask what you can tell your son. Perhaps you could tell him that even if he were to believe in an afterlife you would still love him and be proud of him. Perhaps you could tell your son that even if he became religious someday he would still be you son.

    Report abuse

  • 44
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #43 by Eliot:

    If it makes him feel better why not let him believe in an afterlife?

    Because its untrue or at least has absolutely no evidence in its favour. Early brain wiring is for keeps. Why inflict a lie upon him yet leave undeveloped the idea that reality is anything other than dripping with potential.

    I was afraid of spiders, so my kids were too. (We have a lot of spiders.) I realised that it was my fault. So I acted unscared and now not only have they substantially lost their fear but I am starting to lose mine.

    There is absolutely no reason to fear death per se. You do no one any favours by acknowledging your own fear. There is no escape. Pain and suffering are to be avoided but that is entirely another matter. Why build a phobia in a child? Kids are tough stuff. Act positive about the here and now, cuz thats all there is folks. Don’t sell it short.

    Mervyn Peake’s epitaph-

    “To have been born at all is miracle enough.”

    Besides, once grown, kids may come to appreciate that the greatest poetry is not available to those without the expectation of absolute loss.

    Report abuse

  • Dear Phil

    I’m not sure that I agree with you when you say that early brain wiring is for keeps. I work with Catholic school children ages 10 to 12 and although they’ve been steeped in the faith since birth it’s very clear that their beliefs are in a state of flux. Their brains are still growing physically, intellectually and emotionally. I have no doubt that in not too many years a few will be priest and others will be ardent atheists. But if you asked me predict which kid will take one path and which will take the other I couldn’t tell you.

    Clear Skies


    Report abuse

  • 46
    DylanMeeus says:

    Hey Bert,

    I’m a fellow Belgian as well but because of this community, I’ll write this up in English anyway.
    Ever since I was about 6-7 I’ve had this problem of “dealing” with death. Mostly because I’ve been fascinated by astrophysics and started wondering about the universe. Being an atheist, even at young age as I’m brought up in an atheist family, I always thought very clearly of this concept of “dying”. No dellusions about heaven or such.

    Over the years I’ve had fluctuating moments, at some time I couldn’t sleep (still can’t) because of this thought of dying, and then it’s fine again for a few months. Anyway it really disturbed me after a while so I went to see a psychologist. Which she concluded I have “thanatophobia”. Though I probably could have diagnosed myself with this.

    But what my parents told me was that no one knows what happens after you die. As a kid I saw this as a mystery, a challenge to find out, so I started obsessing over it and probably fully developed this phobia. So that is surely something you do not want to tell him, if he’s anything like I was.

    Though I think most people grow out of this fear, I didn’t. I really hope your kid does because it’s not very pleasant to be worrying sick at a young age about something that (hopefully) won’t happen for a few more decades.

    In conclusion, I don’t think there is a lot parents can do. Distract your kid from the thought of dying. Eventually he’ll stop thinking about it and it might not ever come back. 🙂

    EDIT: I’m now a 20 year old, still dealing with this problem from time to time. So everything I said is from my own point of view and first hand experience.

    Report abuse

  • 47
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #45 by Eliot:

    Dear Phil

    I’m not sure that I agree with you when you say that early brain wiring is for keeps. I work with Catholic school children ages 10 to 12 and although they’ve been steeped in the faith since birth it’s very clear that their beliefs are in a state of flux. Their brains are still growing physically, intellectually and emotionally. I have no doubt that in not too many years a few will be priest and others will be ardent atheists. But if you asked me predict which kid will take one path and which will take the other I couldn’t tell you.

    Clear Skies


    Hi Eliot.

    By 10 and 12 I agree with you that there is still much pertinent wiring still to be done but not for general predispositions. Values and aesthetics, the non intellectual stuff are mostly a done deal.

    The period of highest firm-ware wiring is pre five, so for a six year old tractability of values and broad aesthetics is rapidly reducing. Jesuits need until seven. They know their brainwashing techniques pretty well.

    Steer clear of heaven and spirits before six and a good job will have been done. Also understanding that pets and grannies etc. and we die well before any real emotional significance is attached to it can be very helpful, I propose. If this commonplace of death is treated in a more matter of fact way from the earliest and its important virtues extolled, we’ll net a generation of happier and much less fearful individuals.

    The second peak of wiring comes during adolescence when the individual is rather more formed and intellectual values adopted. This is a useful period putting intellectual flesh on a skeleton of sensibilities.

    Report abuse

  • 48
    bumphilosopher says:

    I’m 50 and still having trouble with the issues of death and global threats. I reject evolution, creation and big bang as to the beginnings of life. What gave me some comfort was learning that different cultures had different creation stories and the group I was with individually made up their own stories.

    I would ask your child to tell you what he would like to happen in the future. And you could be hopeful of what you believe the future holds.

    Report abuse

  • 49
    CannedAm says:

    We spent the past year dealing with this from our son who will soon turn 9. Suddenly he started crying at bedtime and telling us that he was overwhelmed by fear of dying. At first I asked him “are you healthy?” yes, “do you get plenty of exercise and live a healthy lifestyle?” yes “Then you are probably going to live another 90 years at least. You have nothing to worry about today.” And momentarily that calmed him but it did not stop this very real emotional upset from showing up 1-2 times a week at bedtime. We read The Magic of Reality together, we talked about what he thinks death might be. An end to life, he said. He does not want this to end. Finally, after about nine months of this, I asked him what started this fear? Was it a story, an image, a movie, something somebody said, what? Well last spring his great grandmother died and that was what started it. I realized that we’d made regular visits with him to her nursing home, but when she declined terribly and became fully bedridden and was in the final stages of her life, we did not take him with us. One day he saw Grandma in a wheelchair, enjoying a meal with us and talking, and doing all the things an alive person does and the NEXT time he saw her was at her funeral! Well, no wonder. He did not see the decline. He did not see her when she was holding on with a very thin tether to this life. I think we spared him from the reality of the end of a long, normal life. Grandma’s transition to death might not have been pretty, but I think he may have had more peace about it. So I explained how very sick Grandma was. How she could not eat and how machines had to filter her body’s waste for her because her organs were no longer working. How she was full of constant pain and she was done with that. I talked to him about her long life of 84 years, how she was a child and became an adult and had a career and children and grand children and even got to know and love her grand childrens children like him. I told him how her love, her husband, died before he was ever born and she was lonely without him ever since he died. I told him how her mother and father were dead, and all but one of her siblings. This (it’s been about 3 months now, and no more death fear crying jags) addressed his fears. Find out what started this fear and address that thing.

    I’ll add, if my son had told me he was preoccupied with fear over what happens after death, I would have addressed that in the most circumspect way I possibly can: telling him that no one knows what happens after death except that physically our bodies decay and we no longer exist. I would have talked to him about what different cultures/religions believe happens after death but I would also make clear that they are only guessing at what happens, that no one who is dead had ever told us what happens. And I would have added that I didn’t exist for billions of years and it didn’t bother me one bit.

    Report abuse

  • RE: The Sun exploding in 8 billion years.

    Its my understanding that one of the reasons for human exploration of space and going beyond our solar system, beyond our galaxy and beyond our group of galaxies, is because the knowledge that the sun will explode, This is one of the reasons we will inhabit another planet and/or group of galaxies beyond the reach of the explosion of our Sun.

    We have 7 billion years to do this task, with the rate of technological advances its feasible to achieve this goal for humanity.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.