Because I could not stop for Death


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

11 thoughts on “Because I could not stop for Death

  1. thanks for this post…sounds like it was an incredibly difficult day. The idea to hire a counselor seems like a brilliant one. I just finished reading Kushner’s book “when bad things happen to good people” He has a section in it where he talks about approaching death with kids and a lot of these points were covered there.

    There was one additional one he mentioned: Tell them this wasn’t the result of any bad behavior, that there wasn’t anything in the world this child did to deserve to die.

    Kids (as well as adults) often associate death with punishment. It’s important to cover that ground so they aren’t scared that they’ll die too because they did something their friend did before he/she died.

  2. Being a little bit of an unwilling expert in this topic I can add some stuff, if it’s not to obnoxious (I volunteer at a camp for kids with life threatening illnesses and lead their bereavement retreat for parents and sibs who have lost a child.)

    * kids don’t have a sense of permanence about death–particularly under 8 or so. They may understand it in the minute that you explain it to them, but it doesn’t mean that they won’t be surprised when the friend isn’t at pre-school 2 weeks later for his birthday. For kids, “dead” can be the same as “on vacation” or “sick”—you have to tell them over and over and also warn them before re-entering situations where the lost one is expected, “we’re going to see grandpa today, he’s very sad because grandma died.” (even if it’s the 3rd time you’ve seen grandpa since grandma died.)

    *I recommend using only the word dead. All other euphemisms confuse kids. constantly interpret for them. “When Aunt Jane says Cousin Louie passed away, that’s a nice way of saying that he died.”

    * The “he’s with Jesus” thing–it helps if that is accompanied by “he died and he’s with Jesus in heaven”–otherwise all other times that someone is with Jesus can be scary.

    * while kids under 8 really struggle to “get” death, they do “get” sad. And a great thing to do is to help them think about people who are especially sad because someone died, and get them to draw pictures, remember in prayers, make cookies,etc. They are remarkably sweet about wanting to help.

    * if kids are very close to the lost one, transitional objects are great—I know lots of kids who talk to stars, who tell stories to framed photographs, who deliver pictures to gravestones. Kids need a place to “put” love until they are able to get that it transcends this world.

    Hope that wasn’t too obnoxious.

  3. A 3 year old child in our congregation succumbed to brain cancer last year. Our church brought in Hospice counselors who specialize in helping children understand death. They divided the children into a group of preschooler (5 and under) and grade schoolers. There is no good cutoff age. One of the children in the grade school group was 6 1/2, and it was obvious from her questions that she could not quite grasp the concept of death.

    I was with the preschoolers’ group, and everything was kept very concrete. Some wouldn’t respond to the worker (my son being one of those), but later he had many questions for me that came straight from his 4 year old mind. Luckily, I had the resources to speak with him in concrete terms. I had some additional resources that the preschool resource specialist at our state denomination gave me.

    We were a well-prepared congregation. We had time even as adults to sort out our response and create a loving environment for all the children involved. It is a different situation for sudden deaths. Often the adults have not worked through the tragedy and do not give the best answers. Thankfully, children are resilient.

  4. Dearest Carol and Brian,

    My thoughts and prayers are with you both. Working as a chaplain in a multifaith/spiritual care department at a women and children’s hospital I have spent many hours with family and friends who are grieving the loss of a child or baby. I also know that such loss has a ripple effect and the grief also leaves its mark on those who support the family and friends. So Brian, this must be very diffcult as you are there to support but also need to process how this sudden and sad loss has touched your life and likely the whole family.
    I appreciated the many comments that were made on considerations when explaining death to children. We often use a booklet entitled, Waterbugs and Dragonflies (explaining death to young children, by Doris Stickney as well as a book entitled, Tear Soup, by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. Griefworks, a partner with the hospital has a website that offers many resources. The website is
    I have learned that many families get much support at the initial time of loss, but after a few weeks or months, people naturally return to their schedules and routines. However, the family who has experienced the loss may still be in shock and their lives, routines, schedules will never return to what they once were. Not only have they lost a child, but often the nature of the family they once were, their social circles, their hopes, dreams and desires, their family recreations etc. have changed significantly. It seems that when others may expect them to return to “normal” life that it can be most difficult to go on. It is important that these families have good support during this stage of their grief. I also think if it is possible that it is best if this support is found within their community.
    Those are a few thoughts as I think of what I have learned as I try to support those who grieve the death of a child.

    On a more personal note, I am constantly reminded just how precious and how very fragile life is. Life as we know it can change in a heartbeat. Not that that should cause fear but to truly love, appreciate and live in the moment (something I try to do but am not always successful at), trusting that the One who creates, holds all in loving hands.
    Brian, may God continue to give you strength as you support this family and may God hold them in comfort and in peace.

    Here are a few beautiful quotes:
    “We cannot judge a biography by its length, by the number of pages in it: we must judge by the richness of the contents…Sometimes the “unfinisheds” are among the most beautiful symphonies” (Viktor Frankl)

    “The mention of my child’s name may bring tears to my eyes, but it never fails to bring music to my ears. If you are really my friend, let me hear the beautiful music of her name. It soothes my broken heart and sings to my soul” (Author unknown)

    “When stars burn out they send their light; they send their life on into the distance; for love never dies and all the light we have ever shed upon each other’s path remains to illuminate the darkness for all the others.” (Cuba Dyer)

    Hope this reply is not too long.
    love and peace,

  5. Thanks Linda! I feel very supported by comments like this. They are very important. I know that my CPE unit at Women’s and Infants hospital in Providence has been invaluable to this particular situation. I respect and admire you for the job that you do at that type of facility.

    We miss you both.


  6. Thanks Brian. We miss you both too!!! If only it were easier for all of us to get together and catch up. If you guys are ever in Vancouver it would be great to see you!

  7. Thanks to everyone for your great comments. Working with people who are intellectually delayed, I found a great deal that I can transfer to the people to whom I minister. We understand the importance of concrete examples.

    One of the things that our founder learned that works so well that we do it all our funerals. Our members never tire of the illustration. We fill a paper cup with water. Then we have a beautiful crystal punch bowl. As we explain about our bodies dying, we tell our members that our bodies are something like the paper cup, fragile, easily torn or destroyed. Then we explain that the real person is being held by the body. Like the cup holds water.

    When we die, our earthly body are no longer needed but we are given new bodies. Then we pour the water into the beautiful crystal bowl. It is really an exciting thing to see the excitment our members as the water is poured into the crystal bowl.

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