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?



2 responses to “Comfort Without Lies for Small Children

  1. Marc L Dolloff says:

    My wife was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in November 2014. Her fight was brief and she passed in February 2015. She was only 40 years old, our son had just turned 6, and our daughter was 2. It took me quite awhile to come to the realization that we were going to lose Maribel. After a month of appointments and treatments, Maribel’s brother and his wife sat us down and they asked me why I was so quiet and distant. I broke down in tears because I realized how shocked I had been and I did not know how to act. I was so confused. I could not grasp that my tough, fiery wife was not going to be able to fight this disease.
    It was sometime soon after that day I had to do the hardest thing I had ever done and ever will have to do; I told my son that his mommy was dying. It was just me and him alone in the house. There were no distractions and we were allowed to cry for as long as we wanted to. It was at that moment where I decided I would not refer to anything spiritual or supernatural. I envisioned myself saying something along the lines of “god is calling his angel to come home,” and realized how vague and immensely confusing that would be to say. So I decided to not take the easy way out and say “she will be in a better place” or “she will always be with us and watching us.” I love my son too much to take the easy way out on such a difficult topic that was going to effect the rest of both of our lives, forever. I started this journey of grief just the way it will remain forever; together and with nothing but complete and thorough truth. All of those answers that we do not have, like how she got the disease, was not going to have ‘god’s mysterious ways’ thrown at it. I came right out with it and admitted that I did not know and I will not have all of the answers. I told him how important it is for us to ask as many questions as we want and to talk to each other and to cry, AND just how normal and natural all of that is to do.
    The social worker at the hospital gave me a great piece of advice when she suggested to speak in front of my daughter every time I was talking with my son about death, cancer, missing Mommy. That way, as she grew older, she would develop an understanding of the words we were using and would eventually know what we were talking about. I cried with my children often. I felt it was crucial to teach them it is completely normal to cry over such a loss. I continued to teach my son to ‘man up’ and not cry when he got a little boo-boo. But this is completely different.
    We had, and still do have, many, many, many discussions about Maribel; good stories and bad. I loved how often my son would ask questions and bring up memories of her. The many conversations about the invention of gods and afterlife where necessary in order for them to put those imagines of heaven and angels in the back of their minds. At the age of 3, my daughter, somehow, starting saying that Mommy is up in heaven. When my son was 7, one night at bedtime, he told me that he wants to be an astronaut so he could go visit his mom. Although I adored these ideas and their thoughts of Maribel, I felt upset that these ideas consume us. And no matter how much I want them to be true, it was not the way to teach them the truth about life and death.
    My wife and I were practicing catholics and both children were baptized. I struggled with deciding whether or not to go through with the routine of CCD, confirmation, etc. I still wonder if I am robbing my children of praying to their mommy and letting them imagine her walking around happily in heaven. I know how badly I want it to be true that I will she her again when I pass. And then I remember how I am doing the right thing for them in my decision to raise them without the fairy tales of religion. I often feel guilty for telling them about Santa or the Tooth Fairy, when I object to the fantasy characters of the church.
    These past 4 years have been horrible. I occasionally fall into the trap of thinking ‘what if’ she can hear me, and I talk to her. It is good therapy, but nothing more.
    I do teach my kids that there is no god, but we do not say ‘god damn it’ because we do not want to offend those who do believe in a magic-man in the sky. I do teach them that ghosts, angels, demons, heaven, hell are all imaginary, but when they grow up, they can believe whatever they choose to believe. And, I teach them everything that is real; Maribel’s legacy she left behind, how she effected everyone’s life, how she made this world a better place, and how they possess everything good and warm about her, from her brilliant smile to her energy she radiated in every room she walked into. And that is better than any empty promises the church can offer.

  2. Lacy Barnes says:


    Hello there, I hope that this reply finds you well.
    I haven’t recently lost anyone whom I had a close relationship with, and although I’ve experienced unfair bereavement in the past– it was never quite as heart-wrenching as what your family has endured.
    I didn’t come to this site because I am grieving. I actually found it on a search engine while researching as I prepare some work for my Developmental Psychology 2123 course in college, but I feel compelled to stop and respond to you for some reason.
    I just wanted to say: I see you. I understand that this must be a hurt like no other. On behalf of humanity, I say… “SCREW YOU, CANCER!”– It truly robs us of the purest souls sometimes, and it’s so messed up! My hope for you is that your children one day reminisce and have memories of their love for their mother and the love you had for them by choosing to be honest about the situation although it would’ve been easy to sell them pipe dreams about their new reality.
    It pains me as well to see people “sugar coat” everything for children as though they’re stupid or not worthy of knowing. A child may not have reached full operational cognition yet, but no matter what age a child is– they are still a human being, deserving of a guardian whom respects that fact and will explain situations with transparency. As the guardians, it doesn’t mean that we are being cold; it means we seek to prevent confusion.
    Depending on what stage of cognition they’ve conquered, they may well just perceive metaphors as literal truths and end up in further anguish in the long run. Well, you obviously understand this concept very well, so I’ll close this message by affirming:
    You have done your children a favor by expressing your emotions, providing a safe outlet for them to express their own, and discussing the fond memories. There is no right way to grieve, but there is a right way to educate children about grieving. Time will tell, and I’m no expert… but I think that you did it the right way, so they should look back in the near future and see you as a paladin for their emotional well-being.
    I offer my condolences regarding the loss of your love. It’s apparent she was a treasure.


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