Talking to Kids About Death
This past week our church family suffered a tragic loss. The 21 year old son of two long-time church members, a kid who had grown up in our church, went missing while hiking in Colorado. I do not know the family personally, but our pastor posted a facebook status update last Wednesday night asking for prayers and suggesting that we “pray like it was your son!” That hit home with me. As the father of four kids, I started to think what it must be like for that family. Needless to say, they were in my prayers frequently over the next couple of days. Like many from around the world, I prayed that everything would work out OK, and that he would be found. Late Friday night, the sad word came that the young man’s body had been found, and that he had died in a tragic accident. My heart ached as I read those words, and continues to ache, for a family I have never even met. At the same time, I was comforted by the fact this young man, taken out of this world in his prime, was now with our savior Jesus Christ. That family continues in my prayers as they work through this grieving process.
To be honest, throughout my life, I have found that one of the hardest things I have had to deal with is people who have lost a loved one. I think a lot of people feel that way. It is not a comfortable position to be in. I never know what the right thing to say is, and I just feel inadequate for the task. On the heels of this tragedy, the pastors at our church presented a message this past weekend titled “Tragedy and the Gospel.” As part of the message, still working through the grief of the most recent tragedy to befall our local church body, our Associate Pastor offered practical advice to those of us trying to comfort those going through the grieving process. It struck a cord with me, and I thought I would pass it along. He offered the following advice:
- Helping people grieve is not just for professional pastors.
- Keep praying for them. Don’t stop! Dealing with tragedy is a process.
- Be with those who are grieving to the extent that you are a blessing. Do not withdraw.
- This is not the time to offer unsolicited advice.
- Refrain from correcting one another’s theology in the midst of tragedy. Overwhelmed with grief, people will question God. It is part of the grieving process. Allow each other the freedom to ask questions and express grief.
- Don’t feel like you have to fix the situation or the problem or even to identify with the person grieving. The grieving process is all about the person grieving and God. It’s not about you and what has happened to you that may or may not be relevant.
- Listen! Listen! Listen, and listen some more!
- Support one another practically. Hugs, meals, prayers and offers of help are comforting. The most important thing is that God wants to tell those who are grieving “I love you!” Be the hands and feet of Jesus’ love.
- Pray with those who are hurting. Pray that the Holy Spirit would come and pour out more of himself on them and the current situation. Pray for a connection between the griever and God. Let God do the work, he is good at it!
So, I didn’t get to listen to this sermon until Monday afternoon because I was working with the kids in the kindergarten and first grade room this past Sunday. I should have prepared something to say. I should have known that the issue would come up. As we were sitting around in small groups making crowns for a lesson on Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, one of the children in my group asked me, “Have you heard the news?” I knew what he was talking about, but I pried a little further to find out what he was talking about, “What news?” “You know, the bad news,” was his response. Again, I pried a little further. “What bad news do you mean?” All he said was, “About the boy who died.” Within a couple of seconds, several of the kids at the table were sharing what they had heard about the situation. Frankly, they had a lot more information about the situation than I did. Kids are very frank with what they know. That type of situation must be handled carefully. Here’s what I did. I explained to the children that I had heard the news, but that I didn’t have a lot of details. I told them that the family must be sad for the loss of their loved one, and that we should pray for them. I also explained to them the good news that this young man was now with Jesus and that the Bible tells us that that is better than any experience here on earth. I answered some questions that they had, but then they seemed ready to move on.
Like I said earlier, I wish I had been prepared for the question. In hindsight, I know I should have been prepared. It was naïve of me to think that it wouldn’t come up. Having thought more about my answer to those kids over the last day or so, I think I might have tweaked it a little bit. I think I would have tried to draw out a little more what they were thinking and feeling about it before trying to give my “answer” or “quick fix.” Looking back, I feel like a missed an opportunity to get at the questions behind the question. I think I would have focused on how much God hates death and perhaps talked about why Jesus cried when Lazarus died even though he knew he was about to raise him for the grave. And, I think my general discomfort with the topic led me to take the easy route and let the conversation be cut short when a couple of the kids jumped to another topic.
So, here is my question to you? How would you deal with the issue of death with elementary age children? I am not speaking about those children dealing directly with a death in the family, etc. who are going through the grieving process, but those kids who have heard about it, or are interested in it, or just have questions about it. How do you convey the grief that survivors feel at the death of a dear one and juxtapose that against the surpassing joy of seeing our Savior face-to-face to a five or six year old? What are your ideas?