Tips for Talking With Children about Death
Death is a part of life. Children know this. Animals are seen dead on the roadside. Pets are buried. Grandma gets sick and never recovers. A family vacation ends in a tragic accident. Cancer claims the young and old alike. Mommy is pregnant, and then she’s not. Death is a part of life, and children experience this reality whether we talk about it or not.
For our family, the conversation about death began with a baby bird we found dead outside our home. While we buried the bird, our young boys asked if the bird would live again. I told them the bird would one day be raised to life. I explained the resurrection. One day all of creation and all who love Jesus will be raised from the dead; and together we will worship Jesus forever. For now, the bird was dead. He could not fly or sing, but one day he would fly and sing again in the presence of Jesus.
Their first funeral was for the midwife who delivered our firstborn. Our children were so young. I took them because I could not find childcare, and I wanted to honor the life of the one who helped give life to our firstborn. In my grief, I told them about how much she loved life and helped us bring David into this world with her own hands. The worship was rich. The room was filled with grief. The celebration of life was powerful. A beautiful thing began in the life of our family that day. We chose to share the reality of death with our children. In this, we have all been drawn deeper into the fullness of life and our faith story.
When children experience death, our response informs their understanding. As parents, friends, and ministers; children need us to give meaning to the reality of death in this world and eternity. No one wants to talk about death, but such silence seems to serve no one well. When we face death in openness and honesty, we find a new boldness in our faith and fullness in our life. Where there is death, there is grief and despair. Each time someone dies, it looks like death wins. Each time someone dies, it feels like death wins. But, death is not the end of the story, because death is not the victor. Jesus has conquered death. This is the faith we profess: Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
When we talk with our children about death, we stand in faith that Jesus conquers the power of death. Each time we share our faith story in the face of death, we offer our children hope and faith in the promise that not even death can separate us from the love of God. Death is a profound reminder of the fallen world we live in, but one day death will have no hold on us. It will be undone by the resurrection of Christ, and those in Christ will live with Him forever.
How do we talk with our children about death?
When the reality of death touches your life in any way, use the circumstance as an opportunity to practice talking about death.
Take your child to a funeral of someone you know that they do not. This introduces them to death in an emotionally safe way. Talk with them about what to expect at the funeral. Talk with them after the funeral.
Answer their questions plainly and briefly. They will ask as they have need.
Let their responses be what they are. They may move on quickly. They may respond with seemingly no concern or interest. They may ask tons of questions. Let their responses be what they are. Assume no value of them.
Validate and help them name any feelings death stirs in them and others who are hurt by death. If they are confused, simply respond, “Death is hard to understand.” If they are sad, “Are you sad?” Let grief be grief. Jesus wept in the face of death. Simply be present in the midst of the pain.
Do not spiritualize the loss or blame Jesus. “It’s okay, but she’s with Jesus now.” “He took grandpa home to be with Him forever.” Or “Jesus needed him more than we do.” Such statements confuse children. Children want their loved ones with them, not with someone else, not even Jesus. Why would a good God take their loved ones away from them? Let your faith stand in the face of death. Ask God to help you all grow in faith in the face of death.
Be okay with the unknowns. “I don’t know” is a good answer. Death is filled with mystery. Sometimes we just don’t have answers to questions. Kids understand this.
Above all, start the conversation with your children about death. The sooner the better. Our oldest was barely two years old. Empower your children with meaning for the reality of death and the victory of Jesus.
Jesus died on a cross. Three days later he rose from the dead. Death has lost its victory. May this be the life we embrace. May this be the story of faith we pass on to our children. Amen.