Thursday, February 23, 2012

Talking to young children about death

Many people struggle with talking to little children about death, heaven, or even Easter because it means discussing Christ's death on the cross.  I have friends who are very good parents who have avoided even introducing those words to their children because they fear that they are not emotionally ready to deal with such painful things, and I can't say I necessarily disagree with that.  However, my children, and many others as well, encounter and even are born into situations where they must learn about death sooner than their parents might wish.  

One of the last pictures of my mom
Since my mom died right before my first child was born, Susie has never known her grandmother.  When she was a baby, I wondered how I would tell her about my mom, or if she would wonder why she had 2 grandfathers but just one grandmother.  I mentioned my mom, told her that she was named after her, but one day I met my upstairs neighbor in the hallway and she told me her mom was dying.  I absolutely broke down in front her and my kids, and later that afternoon, when Susie said "Mommy was sad when she was talking to Miss Jodi" I knew I had to tell her.  I had to tell her that my mom got sick and died.  And that I miss her.  And then I got out a book about Heaven and we read it together (I helped the words along a bit -- we were somewhat just enjoying the pictures).  And now she knows.  And we can talk about it.  And we do quite a bit. Grandmommy is in heaven.  She used to live at Grandad's house but then she died and now she lives with Jesus.

Here is the beautiful part for me: my mom is now known to her.  Susie recognizes her pictures and talks about Grandmommy.  The other day she was pretending about her.  We still haven't even pulled out the home videos, but when we do, I know she will be even more present in her mind. And when we visit my childhood home next, I will be able to point out even more special things that I know she will latch onto.

When Susie heard me say that Miss Jodi's mom was dying she said "like Jesus died on the cross."  I am so thankful that her first reference with death is Christ's death -- because he triumphed over death!  And it is because of his death that we who have lost our loved ones can have hope -- and can pass this hope on to our children when we teach them about death.  I am not suggesting being overly morbid or trying to push children into emotional situations they are not ready for, but I am talking about creating a category for my children in which we weep but we hope in Christ when we are facing a difficult situation.  This is why I bring my kids to a visitation -- perhaps not yet to see the casket unless it was someone they knew particularly well, and we haven't had that situation yet -- but to see what mourning looks like to people who hope in the gospel. 

The truth is, there is not an age in which we can discuss death and not feel the sting it brings.  One of the elders at my church, Bruce Ware,  lost his mother shortly before I lost mine and he told me "Gretchen, my mother was 90 years old and ready to see her Lord.  But she was my mom. And I miss her tremendously because she was a good mother."  It is also true that we cannot control when and if death will encounter our children -- it is outside our control.  Your child may lose a pet, or a grandparent, may deal with a miscarried younger sibling or may witness the sickness and loss of a family or church friend, as many children at our church witnessed when our music pastor Chip Stam battled cancer and died. My encouragement would be to begin at a small age to explain just a little bit, and be open with them when someone is sick or passes away.  And even more important -- be sure to teach your children, even very very young ones, that Christ died once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring us to God.  It is the ONLY way we can also then explain that we have hope that one day we will be able to say "oh death, where is your sting? Oh grave, where is your victory?"

So I would encourage you in the upcoming Easter season, to use Holy Week as a time to instruct your little ones about Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection from the grave!  Teach them songs, read them books (you may want to be choosey about the pictures so they aren't overwhelmed with images of Christ's death they aren't ready for), and celebrate that He is ALIVE!  In the upcoming weeks I hope to post more ideas for the little children during Holy Week, but for now, here are several posts I wrote last year when Susie was almost two.  Please leave me a comment if you have input or ideas for me!  


D and D said...

Gretchen, you so poignantly expressed an issue we have had to struggled to deal with in our family for the last few years. I would not have chosen for my children to know about death, loss or grief at such young ages but in God's sovereign plan, these are things they've had to learn about. While I have not lost a parent (and I can only imagine how painful that will be when that day comes) I have lost several other dearly loved family members in just the last few years and my children have been in the midst of the grief that followed each of these deaths. They've also been present, especially Wyatt, as we've grieved the loss of the babies we lost to ectopic pregnancies. As a result we've spent much time discussing Christ'sredemption of sinners and the hope we have as believers of being with Him forever in Heaven. I'm sure to some it might seem inappropriate to overhear my children discussing heaven and what it's like and how they'll be so excited see their missing siblings there. How many 1st graders walk around contemplating life after death on a regular basis?! But this is the reality of the hope we have been given and I can only pray and watch to see how these seeds of thought take root in them to bear fruit in their souls as they see that this life is temporary and there is more to come, so much
more...thank you for posting this.

Melissa said...

Thanks so much Gretchen.

My Mom died while I was in college, long before I was ever married. Though my Dad's remarried and I love my step-mom, I want my son (due in June) to know my mom somehow.

This post meant a lot to me.

James and Christen said...

I loved this post. It is such an incredible example of what Christ-Centered living is all about. I am so excited at how Susie responded. It is truly incredible all that they grasp at such a young age. I can't wait to hear how it goes when you visit IL again. Praying for you. C