Talking to children about death and grief

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It is said that the Victorians had a taboo about talking about sex but spoke freely about death and dying.  In our age we have reversed that.  Yet, life is fragile and death can come at any moment.  So, it is important that we should be able to talk about it and this includes with our families and children.

I think that it’s important to be able to talk with others, including children about the subject of death in general terms.  This will make it easier to talk to them and for them to understand when a specific situation happens.  This is something that parents, Sunday School teachers and church pastors can be working on together. It can be a natural part of our conversations as families.  It is a theme that will come up as Sunday School teachers tell the whole story of the Bible.  It’s present in our hymns and songs and central to the imagery of baptism as well as the focal point of communion.

The key things that I would want children to be hearing concerning death are:

  • That God made us to live for ever with him. Death was not present in the world at the beginning. Death came into the world because of sin.
  • This means that death is a grievous thing. It is okay, indeed it is right and proper to grieve, to shed tears when someone dies and even to experience emotions such as anger at the reality and the pain of death.
  • The solution to death is the Gospel.  We will still have to physically die but we can look forward to eternal life with Jesus if we trust in him because he has died and risen again. 
  • Death is also sad because it is a parting.  The person we loved is “absent from the body.”  Just as we miss people when they go on a long journey or move away, so too we know that we will miss people when they die. 
  • Because of the Gospel, Christians believe that there is eternal life for ever with Jesus and that we will be raised with new bodies one day.   So, the parting is temporary.  This doesn’t take away from the sadness of parting, but it makes it bearable.  We say that we “mourn but not as those without hope.”

Knowing about death will help children to be ready for when those they care about suffer loss. It will help them to empathise with friends and relatives that are grieving.  It will prepare them for when they have to say goodbye to loved ones as well.  A Gospel centred conversation about death will also help take away fear of growing old and dying for them too.

This sets the context for when a family or community is bereaved.  It will help us to have the individual and specific conversations at that time.  I believe it is important to be factual and truthful in an age-appropriate way.  We can explain that their loved one has died, that this is a little bit like when we go to sleep, except they will not wake up in their body here.  Instead, they will wake up in Jesus’ arms.  We can talk about how we are going to miss them and so we are sad at the moment and that it is okay to cry.  We can talk about how we look forward to seeing them again one day.

Then, it is good to include the whole family in the process of grieving.  There will be tears and hugs. There’ll be thoughtful silences. There’ll also be lots of happy memories and fun ones too.  There’ll be laughter at those happy and amusing recollections. There’ll also be those unexpected moments when a memory hits and the tears come without warning too.  Just as those things are part and parcel of grieving for adults, they are important for youngsters too.

My personal view is that children should be welcome at funerals, just as they are at weddings, baptisms and birthdays.  There are other ways that we can help them to remember and to grieve too such as looking at pictures and videos together.  It’s good to encourage them to contribute their memories and stories to conversations.

As believers in Jesus, we will want to keep coming back to the Gospel and the hope of resurrection.  If you can’t be too young to know about and talk about death then nor can you be too young to hear about the solution.

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