Talking with your children about... Death

When Scripture Union undertook research into children and faith, as part of the development of Guardians of Ancora, we heard from many parents, carers and group leaders who struggled to know what to say and how to talk with children about big issues.

These ‘Talking with your children about…’ features are part of our response to this expressed need. We hope you find that the ideas and suggestions here help both you and your family.

Issues to think about

(Based on and adapted from: Children and Grieving (SU), J. Goodall, 1995.)

Children are aware of death. They see dead birds, insects and animals lying by the road. They may see death at least once a day on television, even if that is in cartoons. Some of the stories we read them will have death as part of the plot, for example in many fairy tales.

As Christians who want to help their children come to terms with death, we may be lost for words. We can all be utterly perplexed and devastated when suffering and death hit home, and we may well wonder where is the God of love. It is now that communication needs to be at its most open. It can sometimes be the children themselves who remind us how a living relationship with God is at the heart of faith. He walks the valleys with us. Jesus himself wept. Then we need to revisit the story of Easter. After the gloom of Easter Saturday we can rejoice in the joy of Easter Sunday. We look forward with longing to the promised resurrection of our bodies and eternal life with Christ. Death is not the end but a new beginning, a transition from the brokenness of our present world to the wholeness of eternity. No more tears, no more sorrow, no more suffering, but pure joy. That is our promised future.

Parents’ questions

Q I don’t want the children upset. Is it better to say nothing about their grandmother’s imminent death?

A Children know when something is wrong. Being left out of the secret, particularly when very young, can make them feel that they are responsible. An explanation properly given can bring a degree of relief that it’s not their fault, even if the news is very upsetting. Do not be afraid to use the word ‘die’. Death is an inescapable fact of life. It may help to explain that our bodies wear out, and that when that happens we die. It’s good to be imaginative, but it’s not helpful to substitute fantasy for truth. John 11:35 tells us that Jesus wept as he shared in the grief following the death of his friend Lazarus.

Be honest about your sadness. Cry together, talk about good times spent together, visit Grandma as often as possible and be real.

‘When Joel, aged 3, was told Grandpa had died, his first question was whether Grandpa had remembered to take his hearing aid with him!’

Q How young is too young to be told about death?

A Children told they are ‘too young to understand’ may feel left out in the cold. Explanations need to be brief and simple. For young children it may be more appropriate to discuss the absence of familiar life functions; for example, when people die they do not breathe, eat, talk, think or feel any more. They may need to ask the same questions over and over, so be patient. Young children learn by repetition.

‘Tom, aged 4, was in a nursery where the teacher’s 20-year-old son died of muscular dystrophy. She was a Christian in our church although we didn’t know her well. I was glad that the first time Tom actually encountered death was when someone died whom he did not know. But he could see something of the impact the death was having. We sat down and talked about things wearing out (which was exactly what this lad’s body had done) and we talked about Jesus’ resurrection and sadness and that it was OK to cry and we were all going to die but I wasn’t going quite yet! And he made a card for his teacher and we said we would pray for her and her husband because that was something we could do. And we talked about the death long after the event.’

Q Should our children visit my dying father in hospital?

A If they are to visit a dying person (or attend a funeral), children should be prepared in advance for what they will see and hear.  Every child is an individual and you will know your child best, but remember that ‘goodbyes’ are important to all of us. Never underestimate a child’s ability to cope with difficult situations if they are well prepared and surrounded by those they love and trust. Equipment which makes adults anxious often holds no fears for little children. They won’t understand it and may find it all very curious, but not alarming. It is usually much less upsetting for them to see what is going on than to be made to feel left out, or to be worried that ‘the hospital’ is a place where awful things happen to people and from where they never come home. Fear of the mysterious and unknown is often far worse than the reality.

‘My dad had a stroke which he semi-recovered from, but he had another bad one two years later. Tom and Jane were 7 and 9 at the time. So we went to see him in hospital. It was not very nice and they cried and I cried and we went again and Grandpa was a bit better, but the children could see Grandpa’s frustration with his body and situation. Tom and Jane would go cheerfully to see Grandpa; they sent him cards, made him a wooden cross and a bowl and prayed for him. When he died, they wept and they still, seven years on, talk about him.’

‘Clara, aged 4, was admitted unconscious after a head injury and put on to a life support machine. In the upset, her 2-year-old sister, Carol, was sent to stay with an aunt, so it took some days to realise that she was sleeping badly and not at all her usual self. At home, she had shared a bed with Clara, so it was arranged for her to see her sister. First, she looked at Clara quietly from her aunt’s arms. She then wriggled down and tried repeatedly and rather crossly, but in vain, to wake her. Finally she asked to lie down beside her on the hospital bed, eyes tight shut and, it seemed, tried to deny the unfamiliar by recreating the familiar. No doubt still puzzled, she could tell that Clara was no longer as she used to be. Later she attended the funeral, sharing in the family’s farewell, but it took some months for her to get back to her usual self.’

The funeral and afterwards

‘I was once at a thanksgiving service for an old friend. His grandchildren were present. They were solemn, attentive and composed. In my mind’s eye, I could see in his old garden a little row of memorials which marked the graves of “Hattie’s babies” (the rabbits) and “Gerbie Howard” (the gerbil).’

Children who have been encouraged to hold funerals for their dead pets have at the same time been prepared for family funerals. They will know that the body is in the coffin. This time, they will have been told, the coffin is to be brought into church for a special farewell to the person who has died and a special thank you to God that he or she had ever lived. The coffin and the body inside it will then be put right away as they are now no use to anyone. If the coffin is left at the crematorium before a service in church, children will need to say ‘Goodbye’ in a different way.

If young children come to the service and then to any refreshments which follow, death will not be seen as a cause only for solemnity or only for celebration. At both gatherings, the presence of children is a reminder to their elders that life goes on and there are still others left to live for.

Explaining burial and cremation

However well prepared they are for the purpose of the service, young children can find it very confusing that someone is with Jesus in heaven but at the same time is going to be buried in the ground or burnt. Not until an average child is about 8 years old will a dead body be understood not only to be unresponsive but also unable to feel discomfort.

Anything that may be familiar to a child which in nature leaves an empty shell (as a snail does) or which changes from one form to another (such as a chicken from an eggshell, a frog from a tadpole or a butterfly from a chrysalis) provides a helpful comparison. The one to have moved out has finished with the old shelter for ever, so it can safely be disposed of – there is no fear of the chicken being trapped inside while its old shell is buried. It is something like that with a death. We of course feel sad to be left behind, but it is better for the one who has gone away to be with Jesus. One day, he will give all who believe in him a new body.

Life goes on

Old photographs can stir memories of happier days. It will also help to think of the dear one enjoying a new life in the company of the Lord Jesus. ‘We don’t know whether Daddy can still see us, but we do still love each other.’ To sit on his chair and think how Daddy used to sit there, or to look in their own garden at growing things which Mummy helped them to plant, could help bereft children and also their adult companions.

Practical advice

  1. Communication is easier when the child feels they have permission to talk about the subject. Listen attentively, respect their views and answer questions honestly.  
  2. It is not always easy to ‘hear’ exactly what the child is asking. Don’t be afraid to answer a question with another question so that you can answer the child’s concern.
  3. After a death in the family, keep routines as normal as possible. Reassure the child that you will be back if you have to leave the house. Reassure them that you will still be there when they wake in the morning.
  4. Children often feel angry when someone close to them dies. Reassure them that they are loved and cared for. Be on the lookout for any obvious signs of disturbance. Don’t ignore it, for it may pass but it may need some action now. If it is buried without being addressed, it may cause pain later in life.
  5. Children should be informed of a death in the family simply and honestly, without big words or lengthy explanations. The 'kind' lies of well-meaning adults only serve to shut down natural curiosity and delay the development of healthy coping skills.
  6. Grief has to be faced. There may be a spiritual sense in which it is accepted that God has allowed the death to happen. There can be joy for the person who has gone, but still deep sorrow may remain for those left behind. Emotions must be experienced, acknowledged and allowed to recover before, deep down, mind and heart can reach a measure of ease again.

Teach spiritual truths in response to children's questions

Q Why do people die?

A Children need to know that death is a sad part of life and that everyone dies. For Christians, death opens the way to a new relationship with Christ in heaven. Death is not something to be afraid of. God does not want us to be afraid.

Bible verses such as the following are useful to refer to: Psalm 46:1; 56:3; 73:23; John 14:27; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 5:7; Philippians 4:6,7; 2 Corinthians 1:3,4; Romans 12:21; Proverbs 25:21,22.

It is also true that we do not know exactly who does and does not have a relationship with God, so we cannot say for certain if someone is going to be separated from God for eternity. Most parents would be reluctant to talk about hell with their young children and place greater emphasis on the fact that those who do know Christ, will be with him for ever.

Q Basic questions about life and death, God and suffering may arise.

A Do your best to answer what you can. You can definitely provide a faith-filled response to your children's fears or concerns. Reassure children that nothing can separate us from God's love (Romans 8:38). The wonder of Jesus' death and resurrection is worth reflecting on together. Feelings of confusion, sorrow and at times anger can be moulded into a positive acknowledgement that a time is coming for those who know him when '... he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain' (Revelation 21:4).

Q God isn’t a God of love who just looks at how we’re suffering. He has been there too.

A Sometimes we just don’t know the answer to the question! Suffering is part of life and Christians are not exempt from it. Alister McGrath in his book Suffering comments, ‘One of the chief glories of the Christian faith is the way in which it links love and suffering. When is the love of God shown? Supremely, through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.’  When we feel torn apart God knows what it is like, for he has been there, too.

What can we do as a family?

  1. Light a candle to remember people you are thinking about, and to remember that Christ lights the way for us and will never leave us.
  2. If your family has suffered a death then keep memories alive by using photographs and talk of happy times to remember the one who has died. Thank God together for their life and all they shared with you as a family. Remember to celebrate anniversaries as appropriate.
  3. Make a scrapbook or memory box which map events in the person’s life.
  4. Share Bible verses together. For example: Psalm 23; 2 Corinthians 1:4.

Helpful resources

Hospice Webpages.

Rosie: Coming to terms with the death of a sibling (BRF), Stephanie Jeffs

Josh: Coming to terms with the death of a friend (BRF), Stephanie Jeffs

The Child Bereavement Trust

Children and Bereavement (Church House Publishing), Wendy Duffy

Grandma’s Party (BRF), Meg Harper

Adapted from Scripture Union Family ministry Web pages.

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