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 and helping them grieve the loss. 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 part of our earthly 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 cares about each tear that falls. Jesus himself shed tears over the death of a friend(John 11:35). God created our expressions of sadness to help us recognize when we face the loss of people or things that matter deeply to us. It is normal to feel shocked and angry and sad.
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. Christians still grieve, but we do so as people with resurrection hope.
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 children soon after death. Don’t hide the truth from them. If you don't share information, 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 okay just to say, "We don't know why, but it makes us sad."
Although death is a part of this earthly life, we do not need to be frightened by it. Death cannot separate us from God's unfailing love (Romans 8:38). 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. A normal routine helps children feel secure and recognize that life is still moving forward.
Don't hesitate to get help for a child who seems stuck in their grief. Reach out to a Christian counseling center or a school guidance counselor for support. 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:
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.