Due to his autism it is usually pretty easy to tell when something is bothering my son, though working out exactly what that something may be can be a far trickier process.
He had come out of school and instantly come to me for an excessively squeezy hug. A sure sign that something's amiss as not only was he seeking the sensory reassurance of pressure but he was actually willing to show me affection in front of his peers (a rarity for any 9y/o boy!)
Once we got home I tried all the usual questions, "have you been in trouble?", "has anybody been mean?", "are you feeling poorly?" And finally got a response when I asked if he was worried. He stopped spinning in the centre of the front room just long enough to nod and say "I don't believe in god!"
After a little further probing I managed to get from him that, after an RE lesson in which he'd mentioned his lack of belief some "wonderfully civil minded Christian child" had taken it upon himself to tell my son that people who don't believe in god go to hell when they die, which he'd managed to laugh off as untrue but had got him questioning what does happen after death.
Fortunately, one of the many positive aspects of my son's autism is that he has a natural aptitude for, and obsessive interest in, science. His terminology may be pretty basic but his understanding is remarkable for his age and stage of development.
I told him that while nobody can know for certain what happens after death there are certain scientific facts that are fundamentally and demonstrably true. I told him that while I couldn't promise that I am right I would tell him what I thought and why I thought it and that it was up to him to decide what he thought too.
We discussed how we are made up of matter which, in turn, is made up of energy and how energy cannot be create or destroyed, it can only change forms. We discussed the different ways energy works inside our bodies and how those energies change forms and leave our bodies both during life and after death.
We discussed how we pass on parts of ourselves, through genetics, to our children and that those parts of us become a part of them.
We discussed how, just like genetics, we also pass on information to the people we interact with and how this information becomes part of the information they know.
I told him that I think that the things that we discussed show that while we may not be around for ever there are parts of us that will be. That after we die we will no longer be conscious or aware of anything (just like when we're asleep) but that the energy that once gave us life will go on to power plants, animals, people and maybe even distant stars. That the genetics and information we share with others means that a part of us will always be with those we love, just like how my grandad's big nose and sense of humour passed down through my dad and through me and will be passed through him to his own children and onwards into the distant future.
He sat quietly contemplating, thinking about everything we'd spoken about for a few minutes and finally looked me in the eyes, smiled and said "that's much better than a pretend heaven, any day! Can I have a snack?"
So much for philosophical angst!