Death. It's a topic few want to talk about, but one that nobody can avoid. Especially with children.
I know I've often shied away from the harsh reality of it with my own little ones. "No, sweetness. The bee isn't dead, he's just sleeping." But this approach is dishonest and leaves our children unprepared for when reality undeniable and unescapably hits close to home.
Last year, when my children were 5,4, and nearly two, my cousin passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. She was a fixture in our home, often at our table for dinner, and never missing a single birthday or event. She was at our home one day and discovered in her apartment 2 days later. It was like having the wind knocked out of us and our children, particularly our oldest, who had no tools to cope. We were in crisis mode for several months, but thankfully through the wisdom of our family and church family, the guidance of the Spirit, and the healing passage of time, our children, and we as their parents, have walked away with a deeper hope in the Gospel and a less frantic view of loss.
The sweetest gift we received in those early days was the gift of vocabulary. We decided immediately to use the word "broken" to describe how death happens. We told the children that Syndee's body broke, and that she went to Heaven where Jesus made her whole again, but that she had to stay there. We were careful to avoid words like "sick" and sleeping" as these would lead to greater anxiety for our children later. "I'm sick...am I going to die?" "If I go to sleep...will I not wake up?" Later, as we have prepared the children to say good-bye to several of their great-grandparents, we've avoided the use of the word "old" as that's a very relative term to children. We've told them that as time goes on, your body breaks from the inside to where it doesn't work anymore. Your body can break from the inside (illness or age) or the outside (injury).
Another disservice we do to our children is telling them that death is a natural part of life. It's anything but. It was never meant to be this way. We were created for eternity and the curse of sin wrecked that. Telling children that death is supposed to happen is more bewildering than it is comforting, and it robs us of our need for hope and denies our yearning for redemption. Sit with them in their sorrow and acknowledge that this was not how it was meant to be- that death was never part of God's original plan, and then point them to the hope of the Gospel.
We had the recent privilege of celebrating the life of a dear Saint in her final days. Mrs. Barbara was a radiant source of light and life in our church. Her bright wardrobe, cackling laugh, and sparkling countenance brightened up the room. A broken collarbone led to the discovery of stage four cancer, and the time left was short. In true Babara fashion, she asked for a homecoming party, and boy did the church show up. What a gift it was, for us and for our children, to hug this sweet sister one last time and watch as she looked forward to heaven with hope. Reunion with her husband and loved ones. Freedom from sin and sickness. Meeting her Jesus face to face. It was one of the sweetest celebrations I've ever been to, and a gift for our children to witness the peace and bravery that comes with hope.
Broken things are meant to be mended. Hallelujah that they are.
With these things in mind, there are two resources I would highly recommend having on hand for when (not if) your children encounter the reality of death, whether it be a grandparent, church member, friend, or family. (Both books are available on Amazon.)
Someone I love died
In the wake of our loss last year, I polled Facebook for suggestions on books that dealt with death, appropriate for preschool age. Our children's minister suggested this one, which I immediately bought. I checked the other suggestions out from the library, and although helpful, this one was the best in addressing death in terms of the Fall and in light of the Gospel. There are excellent spaces for children to write and process their own thoughts, as well as prose and Scripture.
Voyage to the Star Kingdom
Ya'll, I ugly-cried my way through this book the first time I read it. (And still can't get through it without choking up at least twice. Or three times.) Written for a family facing grim diagnoses for two of their daughters, this gorgeously illustrated book drips with hope. First of all, it reminds us that we are not alone- that the Lord will send his people to surround and uphold us, and that he gives his Spirit to comfort us. It is a beautiful reminder of his love and care even in dark providence, and gives a beautiful picture of the hope that is ours in Jesus.
Remember, dear friends, that in light of this topic, we have not been given a spirit of fear. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but we have been given life abundantly. Go and live and don't let fear steal your joy. Remember you are not alone (and neither are your children!) and that after the last tear falls, there is love.