Talking with Children about Death and Resurrection

It was just the two of us at the dinner table. We were eating my daughter’s favorite meal and talking about the kinds of things that concern preschoolers.

After a lull in the conversation–part of which took place in a make-believe language–about her stuffed animals, drawing, playing in the gym and funny things other kids said at preschool, she turned to me and said: “I don’t want to die.” I was taken aback–her closest brush with death was when her grandmother died nearly two years ago when she was, I thought, too young to remember.

Clearly something was bothering her, however, so I replied that no one wanted to die and added that I think dying is hard because we have to say goodbye to people we love, like Grandma, and then wait a long time to see them again.

In my mind’s eye I could clearly see my mother’s hospital room where we said our last goodbyes. I knew we wouldn’t be seeing her again in this life. We waved one last time from the doorway and, taking the hardest step of my life, turned and left for the airport. She died six weeks later.

“But I don’t want to wait a long time to see Grandma,” she wailed. “Neither do I,” I answered, and together we sobbed for a while.

Once the tears subsided, we continued on with the evening routine, finishing the now cold spaghetti and brushing teeth. By bedtime she had cheered up and wanted me to sing “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” as she hopped into her room:

Here comes Peter Cottontail
Hoppin’ down the bunny trail
Hippity hoppin’, Easter’s on its way

As I finished the verse it occurred to me that Easter might offer a way to talk about death without the painful associations of deceased relatives. So I told her why we celebrate Easter–Jesus died and came back to life and we will too. Her incredulous response: “Jesus died and came back to life?! I don’t understand!” I said I didn’t understand how it worked either, but that was the promise of Easter–everyone who dies will come back to life. “But how? Where do they all live?”

“Well, they live in heaven, with Jesus.”

“Where’s that?! People die and come back to life?! No way!”

Yeah, I thought to myself, I guess it is pretty incredible. I mean, I couldn’t remember ever not believing in the resurrection or fearing death as a child. The earliest memory I have of discussing death was a sacrament meeting talk my mom gave using her props from primary–a cardboard figure for the body and a cutout sheet of tracing paper for the spirit. That was about the time my grandfathers died the year I was in kindergarten, and I just remember feeling that the lesson made intuitive sense.

But now that it was my turn to pass along to the next generation the assurances of life after death, I realized that I had yet to really grapple with those prospects. Recent and unexpected indications of health problems had me ruminating in not particularly productive ways about mortality, and watching my mother’s coffin sink into the grave a couple of years ago has left behind a heavy sense of finality that I haven’t yet managed to dispel.

So for the time being I deflected. “Let’s just try to be safe and healthy and live for a really long time,” I said. And then we read a book about Lowly Worm. We’ll revisit the topic again someday, and I hope to be better prepared when we do.

In the meantime, I join with the father of the child afflicted with a dumb and deaf spirit in pleading: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

How about you, dear readers; what kind of success and/or difficulties have you encountered in discussing these topics with children?

Comments

  1. Dancer_Esquire says:

    This is especially timely as I spent just last night consoling my 11 year old daughter after news broke that my 89 year old grandmother is on the verge of passing. Part of that conversation did involve discussion of what comes next. Interested to read comments on this.

  2. The Other Clark says:

    With four grade-school aged children and a mother in the late stages of cancer, this has been a topic much on my mind. The resurrection gives hope; how to prepare children for the death of a loved one is not so clear.

  3. I think the main thing is just giving them space to mourn. Without your willingness to sob with your daughter, none of the words would matter.

  4. We have the opposite problem here. My six year old is very flippant about death because, “well, we’ll just be resurrected.” He is constantly saying things like “okay, just kill me”, when he gets in trouble. I’m glad he accepts the idea of resurrection, but I wish he understood the gravity of death a little better.

  5. Well, that’s a perspective that hadn’t occurred to me–the moral hazard of the resurrection.

  6. My four-year-old is really intrigued by death right now, too (this comes from a mixture of Christmas stories, hearing Star Wars mythology summarized by her dad at bedtime, and this kids’ book I checked out about carrion-eating vultures). I want my children to have a healthy reverence for the finality of death but also a hope that we can all be together again some day. I don’t want them to feel fear. It’s been sort of a terrifying path to navigate, especially when she is always asking, “Mom, can we talk about “dead” some more?”

    My typical thesis whenever this conversation comes up is that life is precious and that’s why we need to protect and respect all living things. Death will come to everyone, but death is just a part of life. Just like how great-grandmas die, new little babies like our baby sister are born. New births will always follow death, and it is a very special thing to be alive and to remember and talk about the people who were alive once, because when we talk about them, it’s like they are alive again.

    It’s imperfect, and I know what you mean about trying to figure out mortality for yourself so that you can help guide your babies through this vale of sorrows, too. We are the blind leading the blind, but I’m glad that my heart usually sparks up a little in these conversations, too. It makes me feel like Something else is helping me navigate these tricky discussions, too, and that perhaps there really is a Somewhere that we go to after leaving this world behind.

  7. (I loved this post, by the way.)

  8. name withheld for this one says:

    MJ, same here. I have a kid with sever depression. As we started meeting with the counselor and talking about suicidal thoughts, the topic of resurrection was brought up my him. Sounded absolutely crazy in that light. Made me look at our dialogue around funerals and death in an entirely new light.

  9. I’m late reading this, and just wanted to say thank you, PeterLLC.

  10. Thank you all for your kind and insightful comments.

  11. When my mother died, my niece, who was four years old at the time, asked me, “Are you sad?” Not wanting to be a downer, seeing as we’ve got the resurrection to look forward to, I said I was a little sad. She said, “I’m a lot sad.” Being a lot sad about death is normal, and there’s no reason not to be sad, despite the hope of seeing our loved ones again, which to me is the only thing that makes death bearable. Someone said, “You can’t take the pain out of death without taking the love out of life.” (I remember it from a talk by Russell M. Nelson, I think, but he could have stolen it from someone else.) My own children haven’t had much experience with death, but I always think of my niece being a lot sad about Grandma’s death and how foolish it was for me to try to preemptively discourage that attitude. Children tend to want black and white answers, but we need to give ourselves permission to mourn as well as hope.

  12. BHodges says:

    Thanks for this, Peter. My daughter experienced loss when she was about a year old and her grandma died from ALS. This was more pressing because her grandma had lived with our family for that entire time, so it was like losing a parent in some ways. Granted she was only one, but I was amazed at some of the things she did that let me know in some way she understood, or at least felt the loss.