When death impacts our families the forced reality of explaining the feelings, emotions, and reality of death with children moves to the forefront for many. Those who do not have decades of life experience have many questions and often they go to their parents, older siblings, grandparents, or other trusted adult for answers.
But what do you say?
How do you talk about death with a child? What should you say? What should you not say? How can you soften the blow? Should you talk about it all?
These and other questions often come up and to be honest, how we talk to children about death is insight as to how we deal with it ourselves as adults.
There are numerous resources available and dozens of websites with good insight. Many say similar things and some give great advice. I am writing this article specifically because our church family is reeling through the very real grief of the death of our recently retired associate pastor Dave Paxton. Dave was killed in a motorcycle accident earlier this week and while retired from full-time ministry at our church, he continued to serve students and children here. His connection with children in our Wednesday evening programming where he planned games and activities has left many children asking their parents to tell them what happened to "Mr. Dave."
We actually canceled our mid-week gathering this week to enable parents and leaders to process better their own grief (not that they are over the death at all) to better be able to talk with their children.
We will be collectively grieving for some time and individuals will be as well at different rates and in different ways. But regarding the kids, here are some of the points I think need to be addressed when parents and leaders seek to discuss death with them.
Be Clear and Specific
Sometimes when we talk with children we tend to use euphemisms like passed away, gone home, transitioned, passed on, and more. Many do this when talking to adults as well. In fact, I had an adult tell me they did not want me to talk of their loved one dying, but to say he passed away. This is confusing for children and can be unhealthy for adults who often appear to be doing anything they can to avoid addressing the reality of death. The Bible speaks of death clearly. How we discuss death impacts how we understand life, the life offered through Christ that is abundant, free, and eternal. So, be specific and use the words death, died, and dying.
Don't answer the question not asked and do not fall into the trap of long exposition when a simple, clear, brief answer is sufficient. Lori Wildenberg mentions the need to be concise especially if a loved one dies after being ill. Do not simply say "He died because he was sick" or you may unintentionally lead the child to fear that he will die when he gets a sore throat. Lori says "If the person was sick say, 'She was really BIG sick. Not regular sick (sore throat, flu, cold).' If the death was due to disease, name it. 'She had a disease called cancer. The cancer made her body BIG sick, not regular sick.'"
Prepare Your Child for the Funeral
If you bring your children to the funeral, and if it is a funeral with a casket, prepare them for what they will be seeing. Say something like "When we get to the church or funeral home you will hear people crying. You may hear some laughing, too. You will hear a lot. You will also see [loved one] in a box. That's a casket. It will look like she is asleep, but she's not. We will sit and the pastor will speak and we will either sing or hear songs. We will talk about God and about [loved one] and share some great stories together remembering how much we loved her." Of course, the details may be different, but preparation can help much and can help you when you are being inundated with questions from your child about all that is happening.
Most people do not attend funerals often and so preparing your child for what is to come will help them process what they are seeing and hearing. Children at different ages will process the entire event differently. Know your child and talk plainly. Be prepared for questions and tell him you will talk more after the service.
Should you take your child to the funeral?
I've been asked this often and it is a great question. Parents are concerned about what their child can handle. For very young children (preschoolers and younger) they likely will not understand nor remember much of what is happening. I personally believe that school-aged children should attend, but each parent knows their children well.
Your Grief Can Help Your Child Grieve
You don't have to run to another room to cry just because you don't want your child to see you being human. You likely have questions. You may be dealing with deep areas of grief. Your child is not your counselor, so do not lean into making them codependent. However, when you are crying because of the death of a loved one, cry. Let them see you cry as that will eliminate some of the lies our culture propagates about who can cry, who cannot, and how we must grieve.
Your child will likely be experiencing grief as well and they may have feelings and questions that come to mind that from a child's perspective make sense, but you know are not true. They may feel confusion or even guilt or fear about death. Sometime a child will blame themselves. "Maybe I caused [loved one's] death?" You can address those fears and questions honestly. Talk with your child about their emotions. It is best if you don't seek to numb yourself by hiding your feelings but talk honestly about how they are feeling.
Children Process Grief Differently
I do not mean they process differently than adults, which likely they do. I mean that children process grief differently from each other. You may have more than one child and one may be responding with questions, being more talkative than normal, crying for long periods while the other may seem silent and stoic. God wires each of uniquely in his image and for His glory and while your children may share DNA or be raised by the same parents, they are not clones. Respect and recognize this. Sadly, I have no "Do this and everything is good" instructions, but being aware is a wise start.
Tell Them the Truth
Christ said "Let the little children come to me" and our faith conversations should not wait until our children are in high school. Talk about God's perfect plan and about how sin entered the story. Share how death was not in God's plan but is a result of sin. But don't stop there. Share about our great God's love for us and his plan for rescue. Your children may not be processing all that God is doing in this, but trust God who loves your children more than you do to give you the words they need to hear. Trust Him to speak to them well and lovingly. Just tell the truth and do so in love.
You Don't Have To Have All The Answers
Your child may ask "Why?" a lot when discussing the death of a loved one. You may not have an easy answer to the why questions. Don't pressure yourself to have the answers. Sometimes you just have to be honest and say "I don't know." Yet, as a Christian, be sure to state that you trust God to help.
I found these descriptions on a Hospice website and while the site is not Christian in nature, the developmental information for children and grief may be helpful. Nevertheless, understand the unique bent of each child and realize that these descriptors may vary. Here are the points made.
INFANTS can grasp that the adults in their life are sad or angry, but cannot understand the concept of death.
PRESCHOOLERS may see death as a reversible, non-permanent event and may invent magical theories as to what causes death and what is related to the dying process.
ELEMENTARY SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN understand the permanence of death and understand the correlation of events that lead to someone's dying. However, death is often perceived as an event that solely happens to other people.
MIDDLE SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN have a full understanding of the physical aspects of death and its finality; however, some abstract concepts surrounding death and dying may be beyond their reach.
HIGH SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN have a full understanding of death and dying, its finality, and the impact of a death on the lives of themselves and others.
God sees you. He knows your suffering. He understands your pain. He loves you and he loves your children. Don't shirk the responsibility of talking about the reality of death. May that talk lead you to a deeper discussion of what life truly is.