[Week 12 of 52 Weeks to a Better Relationship With Your Child]
Do we need to teach children about death?
At what point should we teach our children about death? And how should we go about it? These are questions that cannot be avoided. From the time a child is old enough to squish a bug or hug a grandparent, death is destined to be part of their lives. It is not really a matter of IF we should talk to them about it, but what we will say.
Obviously, it is going to be hard to talk about death honestly if we have not grappled with the subject personally. If we try to pretend that death is not an unavoidable part of life, we will not be prepared to realistically talk to our children about it on any level. And our children need us to be able to offer insight. If we don’t, they will look for answers in other places.
Death helps us ask the right questions
Death makes us ask questions about the meaning of life. It makes us face whether or not we have any hope in living. It confronts us with our finite time on this earth and our inability to control the most predictable and universal outcome that humans share. If we cannot help our children understand and be prepared for death, whether theirs or someone else’s, we have missed an opportunity to touch the depth of their soul.
I suggest these strategies for helping your child understand death:
- Don’t give them empty platitudes to make them feel better
- Let them have pets
- Read or tell them stories that involve normal death.
- Explain to them why you are not afraid of death
- Don’t shield them from death in their sphere of friends and family
Don’t give them empty platitudes
Children usually know when they are being treated like they are stupid or being given thoughtless answers. By thoughtless, I don’t mean that you don’t care about your children. What I mean is answers that are without substance in meaning, that are given to avoid the discussion or that are sound nice without really answering questions.
Telling your children one-liners like “he will always be here with us” or “I will always watch over you” are vague. Without addressing real concerns, these answers are likely to leave children confused and unequipped to deal with real grief when it happens.
I know from personal experience with our children that even a 4 year old can be hit hard by grief. And even a 4 year old can benefit greatly from already having a basic understanding of life and death, hope and meaning. Without these things, it is hard to give the firm comfort that a child may well need.
Let them have pets
One of peculiar benefits of pets is that they have shorter life spans than people. A pet’s death can be a controlled emotional crisis that gives children insight into life. Even with minimal emotional attachment, such as in the death of a goldfish or anything that doesn’t obviously respond or can’t be held, the disappointment can help a child begin to understand these unavoidable cycles of life.
The death of a pet with more personality or ability to interact, such as dogs or goats, will usually have a bigger impact on children. While it is sad to lose such a furry friend, it is also a good way for children to be introduced to real death. With pets, they can often see the sickness, trauma, and suffering that tend to accompany death.
Hopefully this will have positive effects like being sympathetic to others who are suffering. It might make them wonder about their own deaths, but that is okay. Everyone should be aware that they have a finite time in this world. Recognizing this is necessary to be prepared for it.
Read or tell them stories that involve normal death
I say “normal” death to differentiate from comic-book style fighting or some of the more horrific acts that people engage in. Deaths in fantasy worlds are not useful models for many reasons. In real life, children do not need to know about every horrible way people kill each other to learn the most important things about death.
Even if a terrible murder or war death is part of their life, they may not need to know the gruesome details. There is still a certain amount of protection that is useful for their tender minds. A parent who spends time with his children will have a good sense of what will affect each child.
On the other hand, stories of hardship, sickness, and war can be told in ways that teach children many important lessons. Here are some books that I remember making me think somberly about death as a child. Since I remember them, most of them were probably between ages 6 and 12:
I read most of the above books to my children, interspersed with other less serious stories. I also read the Bible quite thoroughly as a child, both by myself and with my family. I did the same with my children. There is no book quite like it for bringing up all the issues of life.
Here are some other books that I also read to my children. My children’s ages span 13 years, so they all listened at a variety of ages:
Then, there is the book that our children lived before I wrote it. It is about the death of one of our daughter’s at age 13:
Melody’s Life Savings. It is also available on audiobook, read aloud by me. In the book, there are pages of my daughter’s journal, as well as a letter she wrote to her doctor right after he had told her the leukemia was terminal and she only had a few weeks to live.
Explain to them why you are not afraid of dying
If you are afraid of dying, the needs of your children may provide good motivation for dealing with that yourself. It may help you to differentiate between concerns for pain or the challenge of not knowing what the future holds exactly and death. Those things may be connected, but they are still different concerns.
Like loving someone, coming to grips with death is not something that someone else can do for you. They can support you and give you things to think about, but they cannot make the decisions of your heart and mind. This is one of the things that emphasizes our individuality. We are each distinct persons of value
I write specifically about matters of faith on my blog biblenewspress.com. You won’t have to read far to know that I am a follower of Jesus Christ in the least religious sense possible. I believe it is the most important part of my life and if any of you are desiring discussion on a personal, investigative level, please feel free to contact me. At the very least I can point you to some good resources, but I will try to personally encourage as many of you as my finite self can. In the theme of this particular subject, I will link here to a letter my mom wrote before she died.
Don’t shield them from death in their sphere of friends and family
One of the worst facets of our American culture is age segregation. One of the best things you can do for your children is not allow this to happen. They will gain so many things from interacting and building relationships with the older people in your sphere of family and friends.
These relationships will necessarily bring them face to face with death and loss, but in a safe and comforting way. In these circumstances, they will be sharing the loss and have wiser people to grieve with and learn from in the process.
Even more than that, they will learn to offer their support to those who are dying. No one wants to die alone. Help your children grow into the sort of people who not only can face death themselves, but can be there for others who are crossing the river.