I got into a pickle with my partner the other day and I’m hoping you can help. We have a toddler, a very precocious 3-year-old boy. Recently we lost a very dear family friend in a terrible accident. Our son knew them well and was very fond of them. Of course, this has been a topic of discussion in our home as it was so unexpected, shocking, and traumatic.
My partner and I come from completely different religious backgrounds. My family is Christian, although not very observant, and my partner is a resolute atheist. This has never been an issue for us before as it’s not something that comes up in our daily lives.
I was in the car with our boy a few days ago when he said that he misses our family friend terribly.
Suddenly he blurted out, “What happens when we die?”
Well, to say that I was caught off-guard is an understatement. My child needed reassurance, and I fell back on the platitudes I grew up with. Stumbling through a cobbled-together variation of an afterlife and how we all meet each other again “on the other side”.
I was absolutely, utterly unprepared for this and my partner and I have never discussed what to tell our son when this comes up. Understandably, he is now furious that I said what I did. What now? How do I remedy this situation with both him and our boy?
Dear Ms / Mr. Mous,
What a very tricky situation, indeed, and one, I am sure, that comes up in many families of mixed faiths. As to how to handle it, let’s first deal with your partner.
You did make a mistake, but he also needs to understand that it was a panic reaction, not a pre-meditated decision.
Sit down and talk to him calmly about it, apologise sincerely, but don’t allow his (albeit justified) anger to overwhelm the discussion. Perhaps keep the apology short and then focus the discussion on how you will handle things with your son.
My suggestion for that situation would be not to address it directly, as this might create a sense of being issued with correction, having done something wrong. Small kids are quite sensitive to that kind of thing. Perhaps you and your partner could choose a time when you’re all together and guide the discussion onto the topic of your family friend and his untimely passing. Ask your partner how he feels about it and let him ask you the same. You could then address the topic of “what happens after death” between the two of you.
Let your son see and hear the two of you discussing it calmly and model a frank and even-handed exchange of views.
In this way, he will hear his father’s point of view and will be able to compare that to the information he got from you in the car. If it feels natural, you two could ask your son what his point of view is and allow him to join your discussion.
At no point (and this should be agreed upon by both of you beforehand) tell him that one viewpoint is wrong and the other right. Religious, spiritual, and metaphysical opinions are extremely personal and it is easy to get hot under the collar about them. But each of us has the right to believe what feels right while being able to accept that others have differing opinions. Modeling a respectful debate about such a charged issue will go a long way towards reassuring your son that there is space for many viewpoints in this world.
Show him that he will not be called out or punished for having the “wrong” opinions.
Lastly, try not to let this affect your relationship with your partner. I would suggest having another talk with him about possible future issues that might come up. Then agree on strategies for handling them or discussing them with your son.
Best of luck, keep smiling!