Talking about death to your children

Someone recently wrote in and asked how to talk with a young child who had just unexpectedly lost a close relative. This is a subject we have not yet specifically addressed in this blog, but it is a question that needs good biblical answers. The discussion must be addressed with gentleness and care. There are some things that can and should take place to prepare for this discussion. So, let’s start with laying a solid biblical foundation about life and death.

Ever since the Fall, death has become part of life. Modern Western culture is attempting to ignore this basic reality of life. We are cajoled, persuaded, marketed, and bedazzled with the idea that life in the here and now is all that really matters. The biblical reminders that life is but a vapor, a mist which is here today and gone tomorrow, go unheeded. Many children grow up in this modern culture with little firsthand exposure to death. But when death does come to those close to them, these same children are often traumatized and devastated. If you read the pages of history, even the relatively young history of America, children dying in infancy or early childhood was common in earlier days. It was not unusual to have siblings who had died in childhood. Diseases and injuries which formerly would have been fatal are often curable now. Compared to even 100 years ago, children today face the finality of death much less frequently than their earlier counterparts did.

That being said, how do you help a child cope with the shock and deep sadness that accompanies death, particularly when it is unexpected? The first and safest place to start is always the Cross. Instead of viewing life as a gift from God, our culture views life as an entitlement. This is a natural outcome of a culture that has a low view of sin and sees little need of a Savior. Death is not seen as the rightful end of fallen man, but rather a barrier to be overcome, something we can defeat (or, at least, postpone) in our own strength. The problem is that this kind of thinking does not work well with children. Children know only the searing loss of the one who is gone. It is only the cross of Christ that can make sense of death.

Children were designed to learn from others, especially from their parents. So the way those who are close to children think about life and death will directly shape how they view death. Here are some points that should be part of your regular conversation with your children before they have to deal with death directly.

Death is a part of life, whether our culture thinks it should be or not.

All men deserve death because they are sinners.

God is in control of all things, even death.

God is good and all he does is good, even if, especially if, we cannot understand it.

We will live exactly as long as God has determined, not a second more or less.

For those who know Christ, he does not treat us as our sins deserve.

Christ conquered death by bringing new life to those seek him for forgiveness.

These themes should be discussed regularly with your children. These are the basic issues of life. There are plenty of opportunities each day to make these themes a natural part of your conversations with your child. For example, it is good to remind your children frequently that there are no random events in this world. Just because the news media doesn’t know why something happened doesn’t mean that the event was random. God plans all things after the counsel of his own will. Passages such as Colossians 1:15-20 and Acts 17:24-28 show the purposefulness of all of God’s actions. Remember that the inclination of the culture in general, and the media in particular, is to add the element of randomness to tragic events. But our God is not random.

Prepare to talk about death by talking about the gospel. Why does man die? Man dies because of sin. Death is the ultimate reminder of the Fall. There is no escape! This theme of sin and judgment is lacking in our culture, but it is essential for our children to understand it thoroughly. It is important to see that life is maintained by God’s grace, not by man’s efforts and accomplishments. When the gospel message is removed from the center of daily life, we begin to think of life as an entitlement. A sense of entitlement means that there is no sense of grace. This is the current state of American culture, and this attitude is beginning to make inroads into the church. (But that is a topic for another post.) The point is that death becomes perceived as something that is not fair, instead of being accepted as the consequence of sin and rebellion against God. Children pick up on these underlying attitudes of the heart about death. That is why you want the necessity and practicality of the cross to be central in their lives and in your conversations with them.

The subject of death should not be avoided just because is it painful. One reason that these kinds of conversations don’t take place more often is that children often ask questions that are more insightful and probing than we are comfortable with. But that is okay. God’s Word has the answers, and your children need to hear them.

Let me stress that these are the kind of discussions you want to have with children before death touches their lives, if at all possible. It is better for them to understand the reality of life and death beforehand. This, then, is the groundwork for talking with your children about death and dying. In the next post we will look at some things that might be helpful when the issue of death becomes more immediate. As always, let me know your thoughts.

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