Giving comfort

When children are upset and ask questions about why a person (or animal) has died, they are not usually really asking for a deep philosophical explanation of the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

Children use questions – especially ‘why’ questions – to signal that they are in need of emotional support.

Solidarity and validation

The cry of ‘Why?’ is a way of children saying: ‘Doesn’t anyone else think this is terrible?’ – and so we answer not with some kind of rationale that tries to explain God, but with comfort and agreement with the question. Reflect their concerns back to them in a way that shows you share their grief.

‘I am really sad about Grampa dying too.’
‘I wish Sammy was still alive and able to play with us and make his favourite jam and tuna sandwiches.’

Freedom from blame

Our children are faced with a complex world in which all kinds of seemingly random things happen every day that turn out to have a connection, and they find that many more things that might have a common cause are in fact unrelated. Childhood is a long journey of sorting out which things are related in cause and effect, and which things are complete coincidence.

While children are still sorting through this overwhelming and confusing amount of data, it is easy for them assume that they are to blame for things that they have no direct impact on. And death is one of these things. The cause of death is often not obvious or easily explained to children. When children ask: ‘Why did God let this happen?’ they are often wondering: ‘Was it something I did?’

Let your child know that they are not to blame:

‘Cindy’s body was getting too worn out – it was time for her to die.’
‘Fluffy tried to cross the road – it wasn’t anyone’s fault. The car driver couldn’t see such a little kitten, and Fluffy didn’t know how to cross a road safely.’
‘The men in the station were very angry about something that has happened in their country that isn’t fair. They did something that was wrong and unfair in return. When we feel angry we need to be careful not to hurt other people.’

Reassurance of safety

When death touches our children’s lives it is natural for them to feel their security a little unsettled and to wonder if they themselves will soon die.

The question of ‘Why did God allow this?’ is an opportunity to reassure your child that you and others are there to care for them, that accidents don’t happen often, and to dispel superstitions that God is in the business of randomly smiting people. If you belong to a faith tradition in which this is consistent with your beliefs, remind your child that God is loving, and that even when death happens to a person, and they are no longer close to us, God doesn’t abandon them – they are with God.

If faith is not part of your family culture, it’s still OK to ‘borrow’ a little faith for these times. Or, if you don’t want to speak of faith, you can simply and heartily affirm to the child that they are surrounded by people in their family and community who love them and are there to look after them and keep them safe. Remind them of their own healthy body. Remind them that you are always thinking about how to look after them and keep them safe.

Beth Barnett

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