Just over a week ago, our church family lost one of its youngest. sweet baby Courage is now in the arms of Jesus. What a difficult situation, which causes unbelievable grief.
Since many knew and loved this sweet four-month-old, and so many who knew him were part of our FCC Kids ministry, I’d like to offer some tips about how to help our children (and their grown-ups) understand the tragedy of death and its implications.
There’s a book I’ve recommended to parents entitled Helping Children Grieve: When Someone They Love Dies (Revised Edition) by Theresa M. Huntley. It explores how children typically understand death, based on their age, descriptions of the grieving process, and more. It’s important to understand that children grieve unlike adults. That is normal and okay. Children grieve in stages-as adults do-and everyone grieves at a different pace. Here are some thinks I suggest:
- Phrases to Avoid:
- “He/she was sick”: Be aware that children pick up on what we say. If we say that someone was sick and then that person dies, they may become fearful of death when they get a cold or the flu. It’s important to emphasize that people only die when the sickness is very bad and when their bodies are too weak to work anymore.
- “He/she went to sleep”: If we describe death as going to sleep, children may become fearful of going to sleep.
- “He/she is an angel”: Although movies depict this, there is no evidence that people become angels when they die. Christianity does not teach that people become angels when they die.
- Words to Use: It is okay and important to use the words die and death when someone dies. Many times people are hesitant to use these words and instead use phrases like “passed away.” This can be confusing for children. Children understand in concrete terms first, then in abstract terms.
- Life After Death: Each person is made of two parts, a soul and a body. Death is when a soul leaves its body. Death can happen to both young and old people. There is no promise that everyone will live a long life. The soul, the part that thinks and feels, continues to live. Because of Jesus’s death, ministry on earth, and resurrection, we can be sure that each disciple’s soul will be with Jesus forever when his/her body dies. Although our bodies die (as Jesus’s did), we will one day get a brand new body, which has no need for food, won’t get sick, and will never die.
- Breaking the News: To tell a child that someone died, it is best to be straightforward. Here’s an example of what to say: “The baby has died. We won’t be able to see him on earth anymore, and this is so sad. We’re really going to miss him. When our bodies die, our soul (the part us that thinks and feels) goes to Heaven to be with Jesus. One day, probably a long time from now, we’ll be with Jesus too, and we’ll get to see the baby again because the baby is alive and well with Jesus.”
- Is this Normal?: After learning of a death, children may cry, or say they are sad. They may have questions, or not talk about what has been learned. They may continue to play as if nothing has changed. Children may not seem sad or affected by a death for some time. This is very normal. Everyone copes with death differently, yet it is common for children to carry on with normalcy. Schedules, play, and routines bring comfort to children, both in times of crisis and in everyday life. Resist the urge to expect your child to grieve as you do or attempt to evoke feelings of sadness in your child. Let your child’s feeling be as they are.
- Guided Grief: After breaking the news, ask if your child has any thoughts, feelings, or questions about what death. Feelings may not surface right away, so periodically ask questions. Children may need help finding the words they need, and you may have the words to help them grieve well.
- Fears of Kids: When someone dies, children may fear that they or others they love will die. It’s important to assure children not worry about that because God loves us, is in control, and wants the best for our lives. In addition, assure children that they will be well cared for no matter what.
- What’s the Answer?: If your child asks a question, and you don’t know the answer, that’s okay. Just say, “I’m not sure, but I’ll do my best to find out.” Then do some research, or ask a professional, to help you find the answer.
- In Memory: It may be helpful to do something in memory of the person who died. There are many things that children can do: e.g., place a photo of the person in a prominent place, do an activity that reminds you of the person who died (plant flowers, go to a baseball game, etc.), or give a gift to a school or church in memory of the person who died. For other ideas, click here.
- Next Steps: Grief is a process. It does not stay for a week and then leave forever. Stay close to your child in this process, ask questions, allow your child to process, and assure him/her that for those who are disciples, death is not the end.