Death, children and God: Talking with children about heaven

Encounters with death take us into the realm of the unknown – the mysteries of life beyond what we can see.

Research among young children from a wider variety of backgrounds indicates that they often have a strong innate sense of some kind of God – something life-giving and loving that is the source of the universe or holds the world together.

It seems that this idea of the world being good and loving is an important part of the mental health of young children. For this reason, whatever your own adult convictions, the child’s worldview should be respected.

In times of death, adults might be inclined to either over-describe a religious view of the afterlife, painting in many imaginative details that go way beyond the claims of even their own religion’s teaching. Other adults are inclined to dismiss all ideas of an afterlife as nonsense.

A supportive, open-ended and respectful approach to children will allow them to creatively explore their ideas about life after death, about the human spirit, and about God – by whatever name they know or give to God.

If your child talks about heaven, ask them to describe heaven to you or draw it, or build it with Lego: let their own imagination lead them. If they talk about God, ask them what God is like.

The aim here isn't at all to seize a ‘teachable moment’ for your favourite doctrine, whether you are a hearty Anglican, a devout Hindu or a solid atheist.

In times of death, the words and images and feelings that children share with us about a spiritual life are part of their work of grief and processing.

Offer your child as honest an affirmation for their ideas as you can.
For example: ‘I like how you include all of the cows, just like on Uncle Peter’s farm.’

As adults we can share our own imaginings and faith gently in response. Examples from your faith tradition can be offered, but not imposed – or used to ‘correct’ or replace the child’s own ideas.

For example: ‘There is a man in the Bible who has a dream of heaven – and there is no crying or sadness, and the gates are always open because it’s never night-time or scary.’
Or: ‘I like the poem in the Bible which talks about heaven where all of the animals and people play together in friendliness and they don’t attack each other. That would be a wonderful place.’

The religious context of the child’s family of origin is of course always to be respected, as the family and their faith community provides important cultural support during difficult times. Allowing a child’s internal imagination freedom to help them deal with the ideas of death and spirituality is easily compatible with the external religious practices and symbols of their community.

Beth Barnett

Beth is currently undertaking doctoral studies in the area of New Testament examining the constructs of maturity in the letters of Paul. She has held pastoral roles in Baptist and Anglican churches and been a long-term volunteer in the missions of Scripture Union, for whom she is a freelance resource writer and trainer. She teaches units in Children and Families Ministry and Biblical Studies at Stirling College, as well as guest lectures in other Melbourne, Australia, colleges. Internationally, she is a writer and facilitator in the Child Theology Movement.