Comfort Without Lies for Small Children

A member of our community wrote to the Grief Beyond Belief Facebook page:

My mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I have a three year old son who is very close to her. Does anyone know of any non-religious resources to help small children deal with grief?

It isn’t easy, and sometimes even people who are themselves nonbelievers succumb to the temptation to comfort children with talk of heaven and guardian angels.  But it is possible to talk to children about death and grief in a way that is both rational and kind. We recommend you check out the Listmania list called Secular Picture Books for Children on Death and Dying.  A book that isn’t listed there is The Day the Sea Went Out and Never Came Back, by child psychotherapist Dr. Margot Sunderland.  Dale McGowan’s book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids WIthout Religion has a chapter called “Dealing with Death in the Secular Family.”  The Brights have excerpted the chapter online.

In addition, the Library here at has a category called “Children and Grief” with a number of resources, including secular parents’ personal stories about talking with their children about death both before and after events required that they do so.  One of the resources listed is a whole series of pages on the topic of Talking to Your Child About the Death of a Loved One at by renowned psychologist J. William Worden, an expert on grief and grief therapy.  We also recommend secular author (and secular mom) Wendy Thomas Russell‘s two blog entries, “Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids About Death,” and, “12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death.”  The British Humanist Association has created a lovely little animated video called What Should We Think About Death? that is perfect to watch with a child to open a conversation.

And finally, a member of Grief Beyond Belief’s Facebook community recommends this page created by UC Davis for families with small children, Helping your preschool child cope with a death.  It has one place that it recommends telling the child about your own religious beliefs; substitute your own comforting, rational, Humanist philosophies about death and the advice still applies.  We don’t have to worry about the admonition, “…avoid saying that God “took someone to be with him.” Your child may begin to fear that God will take him or her away, too.”  And it’s true, kid Logic can turn ideas like, “Now your grandmother is watching over you forever,” or “God needed another angel so he took your brother to heaven with him,” or, “Grandpa has gone to sleep forever,” into nightmarish beliefs from which the child must be rescued later — if they are even able to tell you about them.  One of the best things about talking with children about death from a secular and rational viewpoint is that the truth is hard, but difficult for a child’s mind to make any scarier.

If you have already had a conversation with a child about death or grief, what is your advice on the topic?



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