Amendment: Check out the comments. They’re really good. Much more helpful than the post!
Brian made it through the day. Thanks for the prayers.
If you ever find yourself in that sort of situation (God forbid), here’s what they did. They hired a children’s grief counselor for a workshop for the parents. I understand that Hospice often has this service as well. I wasn’t there (we pastor separate churches), but Brian reported that she didn’t say anything magical–nothing that we wouldn’t have thought of. But he was really, really glad she was there.
From what I could glean, this is what she told the parents:
Be concrete. Children in preschool generally don’t think in abstracts. I’m thinking about how we talk about death, and it’s often in the abstract, isn’t it? The “d” word is too hard, to harsh to bear. We speak of people who “pass away,” “go the way of the flesh,” “enter into eternal rest,” or “pass on.” Even in our cultural abstracts, Children need concrete.
Be honest. I have a friend whose child in preschool, and the school says it’s very important for children in the first few years of life to grow up knowing that the world is good. I agree, in theory. We should surround our children with love, care and a safe environment.
The difficulty is when we’re not honest with our kids because we’re trying to hide bad things. We don’t want to do backbends to keep our children from ever seeing the bad, because then they may grow up, not thinking, the world is good, but, my parent’s aren’t honest. It would be tempting for the parents to avoid telling the children about this, but the child will hear about it in school. And it’s better that a child hears about it from a parent than another four year old or a teacher.
It’s okay to say that the child is with Jesus. I usually explain death to children a little differently. I usually tell them what comforts me: “God is love. Pure, beautiful love. God made us in love, and we die in love. When that little boy died, God came and enfolded him in God’s big, loving arms.” Which might be too abstract (going against the first point) but it’s what I honestly believe (going with the second point).
There was other good guidance, like telling the children how rare this is, so that the child doesn’t expect to die as well. And the response of the child may be strange. The child may cry. Many of them laugh. Sometimes they don’t respond at all.
There are so many things that strike me in all of this. The main one is how well acquainted our family is with death. Not in a morbid way, but in a sweet and beautiful, part-of-life sort of way.
And that’s a gift the church has given to us. We’ve always been in these caring communities with old people. Current research has shown that the elderly believe more in life-after-death than the young do. My daughter has spent many Sundays constructing cards and valentines for people who are dying. We’ve been having these discussions for a long time. I love being in an intergenerational community, where our family can get an appreciation of every stage in life.
But…of course, the sweetness melts away in this situation. The death of a ninety year old is completely different from the death of a four year old. Who can explain the death of such a small child?
A college friend lost a child. She was two. He went to wake her up one morning, and she didn’t stir. A year after she died, he sent us a letter that still makes me cry when I think of it. He wrote, “I always knew that her life would be a novel. I just didn’t know it would be so short.”
photo’s by tartx