Question from a 4 Year Old- “What happens when our story ends?”

Cuddles- ISO 1000 35mm f/3.2 1/125
Cuddles- ISO 1000 35mm f/3.2 1/125


Last night during a pre-bedtime snuggle my 4 year old came out with an unexpected question- one I assumed was much father down the road.  This is how our conversation went:



“What happens when our story ends?”  At first I didn’t know what he meant so I had to ask more questions.

“What do you mean?  ‘When our story ends?'”

OUR story…”


At this point I was afraid my son was getting unusually deep with his questions.  Could he really be asking about our own mortality?  What happens when our story ends and we no longer exist?  Death is not a concept my son is familiar with from a first-hand perspective.  I was afraid to lead him into the question but at the same time I felt he deserved it answered if this was really what he wanted to know.  Judging by how he asked it and the silence that preceded the question it must have been in his head for a while.

“Do you mean what happens when we are no longer here?  In our world?”  (He often talks about the planet and our “world”, meaning our little life and circle of family/friends/activities)

“Yeah.  What happens?”

Deep.  Breath.  How in the world do I explain death to my 4 year old who has never lost anyone?  He knows things “die” from reading books and watching movies.  When it comes to our own deaths though, this requires a little more of an explanation.  And sadly, it is my responsibility to explain it to him the way our family believes it and not the way most of the world thinks of death.  It was then that I almost wished we were religious because telling a child death means going to a magical place full of angels and music and light is much better than what I told him.

“Nothing.  When our story ends it is over.  We get a certain amount of time here and then we are done.”

“How much time!?”

“Some people get a lot of time and live to be 60 or 80 or even 100!”

“Or zero” and he made a 0 with his little innocent hands.

“Yes, and sometimes 0.  Sometimes it ends sooner.  But sometimes we get to live a very long time and see and do a lot of things.”

“What about 5,500?”

“No… we can’t live to be 5,500.  If we are really lucky we can live to 100.  Maybe even a little longer, but that is it.”

“Awww…. I want to be REALLY old and be 5,500.”

That was it.  A short conversation with my 4 year old about life.  And death.  And not living to be 5,500 years old.  I am completely comfortable telling my son that there is a Santa Claus but I won’t be sharing about Heaven and Jesus, not yet anyway.  Not until he can understand that it is something others believe, and that there are other deities that exist as well.  If he then chooses to believe in a God then he can, and I’ll support that.  I just want it to be his choice and not one that was forced upon him.  For now we are happy to live religion free and to raise sons who are taught that being good is a lifestyle, not a chore to be rewarded.  It may not be the popular choice but it is our choice to make.  It is crazy to me that I have a little person capable of asking questions of this nature.  He is no longer a baby.  I’m sure there will be many more “deep” conversation to come, which is both a scary and exciting thought.


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  • I think you handled this well and am thankful that there are moms out there who don’t feel the need to lie to their kids. Or tell them what “we” believe. I got that (from teachers at my religious school) all the time growing up and I never did believe what they did.

  • Chana @ Adventures In Fluff

    Love this Kim! As a blogger I’ve been too chicken to take on this topic. Thought about it many times, but always back down. It’s so easy to feel alone being an Atheist in a religious world. My girls have asked me this question a few times. It’s hard with us because my husband has switched over to Christianity in the past couple of years so our views are greatly different. That being said, I don’t feel it’s wrong to tell them my views as well as their father’s views at the same time. When my girls asked what happened when we die I simply stated that we don’t really know. Some people like Grandma and Daddy believe that we go to Heaven. There are others like myself that believe that life just ends. I told her that it’s up to her to believe what she wants to and what she believes might change over the years. As of now she chooses to believe in God and Heaven and I’m fine with that.

  • WHEW. Good answers. That is the way our family believes it too, and dammit if that doesn’t make it a lot more anxiety-provoking to even THINK about explaining to my kids. Thanks so much for sharing – I needed to hear this simple story.

  • Jennifer

    I love the way you handled such a delicate subject. My son is only 20 months but I have spent a lot of time considering how to answer questions like this when they do come up. It’s refreshing to see this from the perspective of another aetheist when so often you read of parents telling their children about God and heaven when the topic of death comes up.

  • Emily

    I actually really like the way you responded. I also intend to educate my kids about what their options are with regard to religion, and allow them to make their own choices. It seems there are a lot of people out there who just don’t understand the “good for goodness sake” mentality. Why should we only be good because we fear hell? Why not be good because it is simply the nicest way to live one’s life? Didn’t Phoebe learn on Friends that there are no truly selfless acts? I’m not ashamed to admit it feels good to do things for others.

  • Leigh

    I have no idea where I found it, but I read article about answering the question they ask, rather than explaining the whole topic. I though you did a great job of that with him.
    My almost four year old just asked how babies are made and was happy with mama’s egg and daddy’s sperm get together and make a baby cell that makes lots more baby cells, then baby is born. He loves cells. Then asked how Beluga whales are made.

  • Maja Fowler

    What do you mean you raise your sons in a secular way so they are good for goodness sake? That is the very core of Christianity (and many other religious or philosophical beliefs), To follow Christ is to follow the path of LOVE, the very definition of goodness for goodness sake. Christianity is not about angels and heavenly choirs waiting in heaven. And no I myself am not a devout Christian, I just actually read before I form my own opinions. You have a very shallow understanding of religion, and I’m guessing great philosophers or other religious systems are also on that plane.
    I too raise my kids in sort of open minded way, but when I was first faced with almost an identical question from my son I stuck to true open-mindedness unlike you who maybe subconsciously but ARE forcing your atheism on your child and worse yet your judgement of other people’s religious beliefs. I told my son that NO ONE KNOWS what happens after we die but people believe many different things and we actually had a very interesting conversation about it. I think the most important part of it was that I could see my son keeping that open non-judgmental outlook on people and their beliefs about afterlife. Three years later his closest buddies are the children of atheists, Muslims Hindu and Catholics.
    You in your post made Christian beliefs about afterlife sound kind of silly, stupid and weird (“magical place”?), where in reality they are very complex, rich and for many people – profound. I never considered this blog to be the most intellectually deep virtual space but you have truly reached a new low.

    • erin

      don’t agree with this at all. what i understood is that you don’t want your children to believe just because they were indoctrinated from birth. Being good for goodness sake means being a good moral person because that’s who you are, not because you’re afraid about hell. I don’t think anything you said makes the afterlife sound silly and of course your children are more likely to be atheist if you are yourself. That’s unavoidable. I’ll likely tell my children about all the things others believe in but they’re likely to ask what I believe in and I’ll just have to tell them the truth. I think most atheists believe in being “christian”- ie good, moral people, they just don’t buy the adam and eve or the whole organized religion machine/bureaucracy. This poster’s reply with “I just actually read before I form my own opinions. You have a very shallow understanding of religion…” is judgmental and the opposite of what I would call being “Christian”. Kim’s point is that you don’t have to believe in god to be a good person, and i would say not teaching your children about god or jesus doesn’t make you a bad person.

  • LCT

    So many bloggers I read are overtly Christian, and I find that reading about their beliefs makes me very uncomfortable when I really just want to read about diapers! Thanks for being brave and being a great role model for those of us who want to raise conscientious, good, thoughtful, curious people without bringing organized religion into things. My parents wanted me to understand the Judeo-Christian worldview that permeates so much of modern Western culture, and I agree that it’s important, but teaching those stories for what they are – stories – strikes me as the best way to be honest with our offspring.

  • Jessica Howe

    I think you handled the conversation beautifully! It’s a hard conversation to have, and I think you answered it perfectly. He’ll learn about religion in due time, and he’ll decide if it’s something he’s interested in/not interested in, when he’s old enough to understand what he’s learning. Until then, he’ll just be a kid…. and that’s exactly what he should be! 🙂 Kudos!