Explaining Death to An Autistic 6 Year Old From a Naturalistic Point of View

My grandmother is going into hospice this week. I was expecting this, and feel prepared. I know she was ready to die three years ago when she first got sick, and I mostly hope that her suffering ends soon. I then turned to the task of trying to explain this to my autistic 6 year old and my 3 year old. I sat down once and told them that G.G.Ma was very sick and likely wouldn’t be with us for much longer, and it went over their heads. So as I was driving I thought that I should get a children’s book about death. I love reading to my children, and Buddy learns best when I read to him.

Then it hit me. As an atheist, I strongly believe in accepting and embracing the natural lifespan. There’s no good evidence for the existence of things such as souls or an afterlife. As far as I can determine, my experience after death will be like my experience before I was born, a black void during which I did not experience awareness. And I figure it wasn’t that bad before I was born, so it won’t be that bad after I die. I am very comfortable with the fact that one day I will die, in fact, I’m more comfortable with that fact than I am the possibility of becoming old and enfeeble.

The thing is, I find this naturalistic view point comforting, and when I reflect on religious people’s attitudes toward death, I think of people like my Catholic husband or the many Southern Baptists I know who are extremely uncomfortable with it and terrified of it even though they believe in an afterlife, and I wonder how helpful those beliefs really are. All the same, I do think that there is something tragically beautiful about the brevity of life, and I believe it helps to keep us focused on the present and what we can do to leave this world a better place than when we found it.

Because I believe there is no after life, I am focused on enjoying this life. Because I believe in no after life, I believe in creating a world where everyone is encouraged and supported in reaching their true potential. We are by no means there, and we have a lot of work to do. So I believe I’d best get busy before my time runs out.

When I thought of finding a book, though, I felt discouraged. Surely children’s books would talk about Heaven and afterlife, things I don’t believe and beliefs I don’t want to teach my children about, for the reasons I talked about above.

The internet is the best friend for atheist parents, and I posted a query on a Facebook page I am a part of where I asked for suggestions for books that treat death as natural and don’t mention an after life. I got a lot of suggestions and ordered three.

And I was disappointed with two. I guess I should have also mentioned that I don’t want the book to teach about souls, a concept that is not natural and not backed by science (mind and body are not separate, and there is so much evidence that they are connected). Two of the books talked about souls, and one did mention a generic after life with souls being like drops of rain returning to the ocean. Which was a shame because I liked how the book dealt with feelings. The other book talked about different religious worldviews towards death, which would have been fine if it had also included a naturalistic one, but it didn’t.

While part of me wonders if I’m being too harsh, the other thinks that people who are Christian or Jewish or Wiccan or Hindu, etc, can easily find books that teach about death consistent with their worldviews. It would be like a Christian looking for books that discuss Heaven with their children but only finding things on reincarnation.

The third book, Lifetimes, was about 60% of what I was looking for. It did a wonderful job of explaining life and death as a natural process, though, it did not focus much on feelings and what the survivors who are mourning loved ones are going through. Still, I put this book in the pile to read to Buddy at bedtime.

Buddy has difficulties with expressive language, though, it’s generally agreed that he understands more than what he can express. Last year our beloved cat, Miki, died suddenly. He had a stroke and fell off the top of the cabinets that he was laying on, and literally landed at our feet as we were bringing the groceries in. Buddy and Sissy exclaimed excitedly about seeing the cat as I felt his life ebb from him, too fast for me to get help. Then 2 year old Sissy seemed to quickly forget Miki, but Buddy would ask where he was and tell me that he wanted to see Miki. We would take Buddy to the place in the backyard where we buried him and tell him that Miki was there, and he just seemed confused. I do think he eventually came to some understanding that death is permanent and you no longer see people, or animals, after they die.

After reading some fun books, I asked Buddy to sit closer to me, and I read Lifetimes. I then told him that his G.G.Ma was very sick and that her life time was going to end soon and that she was going to die. It may sound harsh, but I’m not going to keep difficult truths from him. I explained that she is old and in pain and suffering and that when her lifetime ends she will have peace. I told him that I am sad right now, and that it is okay to feel sad.

Since he doesn’t answer open ended questions about his feelings, I asked him if he was feeling happy or sad, and he said, “sad.” I told him it was okay to feel sad and offered to sit with him for a little bit, which he accepted. I told him that we could make a card for her and G.G.Pa tomorrow and asked if he’d like that and he said, “card for G.G.Ma.” It’s hard because I have no way to tell how much he understands, and if he has questions, he will have a hard time figuring out how to ask them.

Still, the conversation has started. He’s going to wonder where his G.G.Ma is when he goes to visit his G.G.Pa and I am going to be honest with him and Sissy. I plan to continue to look at more children’s books that tackle death and hopefully find something that is everything that I want. In the meantime, since I don’t have any hope my grandmother will get better, I will continue to hope that she finds peace soon.

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