Every time a celebrity dies unexpectedly, the news and entertainment industry nearly overwhelms us with coverage. If the celebrity dies by his or her own hand, the news-storm stalls out and rains reports and rumors on us for weeks. Among the people caught in the flood are children.
How do we talk to children about death? It is bad enough when the deceased are celebrities or victims of some nationally publicized tragedy, but it is even harder when the deceased is a member of the family. Even talking about the death of a family pet presents significant challenges.
As a dad, I have talked to my own children about death and, as a pastor, I’ve talked to other people’s children. Some children withdraw and isolate themselves, others get angry and act out, still others seek reassurance and the security of being near a loving adult.
Before I ever talked to a child about death, I was the child being talked to. I was in sixth grade. My older brother had been ill for a long time and my parents had been staying with him at the hospital while I stayed with my grandparents. I still remember my dad and mom as they stepped through my grandparents’ doorway. I knew immediately something was wrong: For one thing, they had returned in the middle of the afternoon; for another, they looked different — not like themselves.
It was my dad who told me. I do not think my mother could. I listened, tried not to cry (as I had been taught), but couldn’t help myself. I fell into a chair and sobbed. My poor dad, tough Marine that he’d been, had no idea how to comfort me.
My grandmother said something to me about heaven and, while that was comforting, it was cold comfort. Over the next days — probably over the next months and years — I did all the things I needed to do, but retreated further and further into myself. Looking back, I wish my parents had been better equipped to talk with me about my brother’s death, but they, living through their own nightmare, had no idea how to do so.
Sometimes grieving children will laugh and play and parents will say, “Children are remarkably resilient,” and assume they are “doing okay.” That may be the case, but it does not mean the child isn’t grieving. Children grieve in all kinds of ways. Play can be a child’s way of escaping reality and the pain that goes along with it.
Parents can use this to advantage by allowing a child to express himself through play. Small children can take part in needed conversations using favorite stuffed animals. They may be able to express feelings through Teddy Bear that they cannot state directly.
Avoid using code words with children. As hard as it is, they need to hear their loved one “died” rather than “passed on” or “crossed over.” We often use euphemisms to soften the blow — for ourselves as well as for them — but in the long run, it is unhelpful to be vague.
Therapists recommend telling children about the physical nature of death before talking about its underlying spiritual realities. Young children need to know their loved one will not speak or eat or talk. When that has been understood, it is time to talk about the spiritual side of death.
When it comes to talking to children about death, the biggest difficulty some parents face is not knowing what they think about it themselves. I’m sure this was the case with my parents. They had, quite understandably, avoided thinking about death as long as they could. As a result, they were completely unprepared to talk about it.
We cannot explain to children what we don’t understand. When it comes to understanding death, there is no richer resource than the Bible. Christian thinkers also offer real help. The metaphysical poet John Donne’s last sermon, “Death’s Duel,” is beautiful and inspiring. The philosopher Peter Kreeft’s book, “Love Is Stronger than Death,” is brilliant and helpful. Jerry Sittser’s, “A Grace Disguised,” is full of hope. For children, “What Happens When We Die?” by Carolyn Nystrom, articulates in simple language questions children ponder but will probably not ask.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.