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A few years ago, my wife’s grandmother died. It was my first experience with death as a father of young children (who were four and two at the time). The impression left by seeing their great-grandmother’s lifeless body was strong enough that they still talk about it three years later.

As a pastor, I deal a lot with death. There are a number of difficult aspects of death, but parents face the particular challenge of explaining death to young children. Many parents hesitate to talk about death, for fear that they will somehow cause emotional wounds that will harm their child.

But death is a normal part of life, and we do our children no favors by trying to hide that reality from them. Unfortunately, even our language about death frequently obscures what we’re talking about: we speak of “losing a grandparent,” having someone “pass on,” or saying that someone “is no longer with us.”  While such euphemisms are understandable, it’s not always the most helpful way to coach our kids through this painful reality.

One Christian social worker writes, “Children old enough to love are old enough to grieve.” Though our culture doesn’t encourage tears, God created expressions of sadness to help us recognize when we face the loss of people or things that matter deeply to us. When we talk to our children about death, we help them live in a world where loss is a regular part of our experience.  And no matter how much we’d like to do so, we cannot protect them from that reality.

Children are often more aware than we think. They see dead insects and animals. They may witness death on television or see it in the newspaper. Death appears in the fairy tales they read. The challenge as parents is not to protect them from death but to help them deal with it well.

Here are a few helpful thoughts when trying to talk with your children about death:

  • Talk to them soon after death. Don’t hide the truth from them. If you do, they may not feel that this is something they are free to talk about with you.
  • Use words they can understand. Talking about a “passing” will not bring a loved one back. Sometimes our euphemisms can actually confuse the issue, sparking questions about why Grandpa would be “lost.” 
  • Give enough information about death, but don’t provide details that are not needed. Allow children to ask the questions they need to ask, and realize that you may not have all the answers. It's OK just to say, "We don't know why, but it makes us sad."
  • Reassure children that death is a part of life, and that they do not need to be frightened by it. As Christians especially, we believe that even death is not outside God’s control.
  • Help kids to remember the loved one who has died, but keep their normal routine as much as possible.

This link from a hospice agency has some additional helpful suggestions, especially recognizing the different developmental stages of children.

As Christians, it is also important to help our children develop a biblical theology of death. This requires both honesty and humility. Our assurance and hope in the face of death is that Jesus has died and risen again (I Thessalonians 4:14, John 14:19). In pointing our children to this hope, we may have to address some of the following issues:

  • Our desire in life and death is to be with Jesus (Philippians 1:21, Revelation 22:4). The first thing we should say about heaven is not that we get to be with others who have died, or to enjoy an eternal fishing trip or beach vacation (or any number of other popular images), but that we get to be with Jesus. There is much we do not know about heaven, except that it is good, and it is better to stay closer to the biblical images than to get lost in speculation.
  • The Bible calls us to confidence about the eternal destiny of those who profess the name of Jesus (I John 4:17). At the same time, we cannot glibly tell our kids that those with no commitment to Christ “are in a better place” (Revelation 21:8). As a parent, it is better to use the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of building a life on Jesus and his work than to send the message that faith in Christ is optional for salvation.
  • Though death is a natural part of life as we experience it, it is not what God intended (Genesis 2:17, I Corinthians 15:26). We do not always know why God allows death to occur when and how it does. Death reminds us that our world is broken and needs a salvation which only God can accomplish. 

Perhaps it will help us to think of our role as parents as teaching our children to grieve well. If even Jesus could weep at the grave of a friend (John 11:35), then it is acceptable for them and for us to do so as well.  Death hurts. It is scary. It separates us from those we love and reminds us that there is much in this world that is completely out of our control. But as Christians, we do not grieve without hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). And this is an important message to share with our children.

 

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