This morning I taught a group of children a familiar Bible story. My lesson was taught in a chapel, a beautiful sanctuary full of windows. The children sang “Jesus Loves Me,” and the building echoed their young voices. They laughed, eagerly answered questions, and listened attentively to the lesson. The chapel was full of life.
As I write, the same chapel which held life now commemorates death. A funeral is taking place, and a life lost is being remembered. As I watch people grieve, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to speak to children about death and to assist them in the grieving process.
Children grieve differently than adults do. It is not uncommon for children to continue to play when told that someone has died. Their grief may or may not involve tears. They may get upset or act as if nothing is unusual. Family members should not expect children to grieve as they do.
When someone dies, parents struggle with how to discuss this with their children. They use phrases like, “He passed away,” “He’s in Heaven now,” or “We lost him.” For children, this language can be confusing. How did the person die? What does death mean? What will happen next? It is important the parents do not ignore the topic of death, that they offer hope, that they help their children understand death in age-appropriate ways, and that they help their children grieve appropriately.
Remember that it is okay to say that someone died. Death is final (on Earth), and it is sad, but using code words can be confusing for children. Place emphasis on the death of the body, and explain that his soul is still alive. “Grandpa’s body was so old that it didn’t work right. His body died. But since we know that Grandpa was a Christian, we will see him again one day in Heaven. His body is not here anymore, but his soul, the part that loves you and loves Jesus, is in Heaven.”
Many children fear that close family members will die once they experience the death of someone they love. Parents might say, “Uncle Johnny was sick, so he died.” Then when a family member gets a minor illness, the child may fear the death of that person. So, remember not to give too many details about the illness or accident, but be truthful. “Uncle Johnny was very sick. His sickness was very bad, and his body became too weak to stay alive. Mommy just has a cold. I will get better. Mommy’s sickness is not like Uncle Johnny’s.”
Children understand death in different ways. It may be years before they understand the permanence of death. Young children often ask when the deceased will return. Older children fear death and think that others they love will die soon too. They may even fear dying themselves. (See Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies by Theresa M. Huntley for great information.) Be ready for questions, and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Then read up and/or ask a trusted minister, teacher, or Christian counselor for help.
We must explain to children that when someone dies, his/her body is no longer alive. We won’t see him/her on Earth anymore. But people are more than just bodies. Our bodies are not perfect. We get boo-boos, break bones, and our bodies get old. But we have hope in more than our earthly bodies (Romans 8:10-12).
For a Christian, death is not the end. Eternal life means that even when the body dies, the soul lives with God forever. If you know that the deceased was a Christian, offer this hope to your child. When she talks about a Christian who dies, remind her that we will see that person again one day. Remind her that in Heaven there is no sickness, no sadness, and no death (Revelation 21:4).
When people die, we will still miss them. We long to see them again. It is fine to keep the memory alive by telling stories about the deceased, looking at photos of him/her, and doing things in memory of him/her. Just remember, as you remember, to be truthful, age-appropriate, and to live in the hope that death is not the end.