Heaven Doesn’t Help Us: Talking to Kids about Death

By Wendy Thomas Russell | June 14, 2012 | 7 comments

Religion just comes in so darn handy sometimes — and never more than when someone you love dies.

Picturing our grandmother in God’s beautiful kingdom, happy and joyful, and awaiting our arrival, is just, well, nice. It’s a fantasy so many of us would love to believe, which is precisely why some nonreligious parents feel guilty about not being able to “give” their children the solace of heaven.

“It’s hard to see a 5-year-old struggle with mortality,” one mom told me. “Part of me wishes I had the ‘heaven’ out — if only to comfort her.”

“I feel bad,” said another, “burdening my child with the prospect of no afterlife.”

It’s understandable. We parents are just so hardwired to protect our children from pain; that’s what we do. Yet there is no worse pain than the pain of death, and what can we do about that? We are left struggling to find something — anything —to soften the harsh divide between alive and dead.

But the truth is, child psychologists and grief experts say, religious talk is no gift at all when it comes to addressing death with young children.

Debra Stang, a medical social worker who has specializes in hospice care, has this to say:

“It’s been my experience that children don’t respond very well to religious explanations of death, even if the family comes from a religious background. ‘Grandpa’s in heaven’ is just too abstract for a young child, especially when he or she went to the funeral and saw Grandpa’s body in a casket. One of my families told a child that her deceased mother was an ‘angel watching over her,’ and the little girl had nightmares for months, thinking that if her mom caught her doing something wrong, she would die, too.”

If it were really true that heaven brought comfort, then all religious people would suffer less grief and have less fear of death than nonreligious people do. And that’s not the case. A person’s faith in God can be entirely divorced from her mourning process or fear of death. The idea of heaven doesn’t erase sadness. The here and now is too wonderful, too beautiful — the unknown too terrifying.

Walter G. Meyer, a San Diego writer, suffered three devastating losses in rapid succession when he was 7 and 8 years old. His best friend and two favorite uncles all died within a single 13-month period.

“I was raised Catholic, but my parents platitudes about ‘seeing them in heaven’ had no meaning and rang hollow,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait to die to see them again.”

Children might hear people say, “Your grandpa went to heaven,” “God loved your mommy so much he took her to be with him,” or “God has a plan.”

Very religious people don’t think twice before saying this stuff, but all these statements, experts say, can have detrimental effects on little kids. Children may wonder why their grandpa would choose to go someplace without them. They may feel guilty that they didn’t love their mom enough to keep her alive, or that they are being punished for not giving her enough love. They may wonder why God would make such a horrible plan, and be angry at God for taking their sister or ignoring their most heartfelt prayers. They might think heaven sounds so great, they want to cut to the end and go there right now.

So on top of overwhelming sadness, kids in these situations struggle with feelings of hurt, guilt, anger, fear and confusion. What kind of comfort is that?

For these reasons, and others, religion is not the asset we think it is when addressing the idea of death with kids, says Miriam Jochnowitz, a parent coach and hospice volunteer who blogs at thesingularparent.com.

“Whether you are religious or not,” Jochnowitz says, “I believe simplicity and honesty are the best approach. Don’t try too hard to say comforting things, but be there to listen.”

One of the hardest parts about keeping heaven out of conversations with kids is that it makes death such a true and final thing. But the finality of death is something children must be able to grasp. Until they do, they won’t be able to let go of dead loved ones — and that’s crucial to their healing.

Click here for 12 Mistakes Parents Make When Talking to Kids About Death



  1. Heather says:

    This is so poignant and important. I really am so glad that I’ll have your book to reference when it’s time to teach my son about this stuff.

    I recently lost my father, and while I am not a person of faith per se (I wrestle with that whole “personal spirituality” thing) my parents most definitely are. We found out about my Dad’s cancer and eight weeks later he was gone. In his final days, my father took great comfort in his faith and I know it eased the shock and trauma for my mother. I was amazed by this. And thankful too. It was one of those “thank god for God” situations. But the difference between the end of life for adults and talking to children about it, I think, is the understanding of “faith.” Children’t aren’t equipped to just trust in something they can’t see, touch or understand. They trust and love their parents because we are there every day, for every runny nose, scraped knee, temper tantrum, time-out and joyful, hug-filled reconciliation. Where’s God? And at what point are children able to truly believe and trust in something… in the sky?

  2. Karen Loe says:

    I remember, as a child, hearing my parents say about a loved one, “God loved them so much, He took them to heaven.”
    I remember thinking, MAN! I don’t want God to love me!

  3. Derek Cramer says:

    Where did the whole “God needed an angel” thing come from? It is my understanding of christian mythology is that Angels and Humans are very different things, and a human can’t just become an Angel.

    I guess it’s more of the whole comfort thing. “Dad isn’t just up there twiddling his thumbs, they put him to work”.

  4. Rich Wilson says:

    My sister was 2.5 when her father died. The cemetery was on a hill overlooking the village, so when my sister asked for her daddy, our mother told her he was ‘sleeping on the mountain’.

    Not a good idea. Because then it became “why won’t he come back”. I don’t think there’s an easy way to explain that to a child, but I think as honestly as possible is best. Trying to make it easier just prolongs it.

    And without a doubt, her cry for him was the most heart rending thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

  5. Melissa says:

    Such a great point (again!), Wendy!

    On a related note, have you read “Heaven Is For Real”? If so, what are your thoughts on this book? I haven’t read it; I’m almost afraid to hear what the young boy had to say about “seeing Heaven”… which in turn, I suppose, goes back to my being told “so-and-so went to live with Jesus” and feeling angry that they didn’t want to live with the rest of us anymore…….

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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