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How to teach little children about death

Question: Hello pastor, Friends of us have lost one of their children last month. The little boy was only 1 year old. We believe God has taken the little boy ‘home’. We as adults know what death means. But how should we tell children about death? Others tell their children that the little boy is a star up in the sky now, but we don’t think this is a Christian way. So, what’s a Christian way to teach little children about death?
Warmly, Henco & Annelies

Hello Henco and Annelies,

Children can handle the truths much better than we adults think. Perhaps they can handle it even better because they deal with the reality in snatches and without all the emotional overload that we add through our ‘taking tomorrows burdens on our shoulders today.’ They can ‘park’ the problem and when they have enough emotional energy, they take it out, deal with it till they have had enough, and park it again.  Often they deal with it while they play.  While they play, they process the information that was hard and painful. At least that is with the younger children below five.  Children don’t rationalize and analyze like we adults do.  Older children (5-10) begin to be more abstract about the reality and they tend to hide it.  For more information on grieve and how to recognize and guide it, search on this website for the topics I have given on this subject. It is filled with practical guidance on grief.
Telling children about death needs to be done sensitive but factual.  A person that has died is like an house in which people used to live.  The people have moved out while the house is now empty.  So you use that picture to explain to a child that when a person dies, the ‘inner person’ (soul) moves out and the body (house) remains behind.  This
house is now no more necessary and begins to ‘fall apart’ and therefore we need to bury it.  Tell children that the body doesn’t live; doesn’t need to eat, isn’t cold or hot and also doesn’t know that they are going under the ground. Compare it something they can relate to.  For example, a dead body is like a stone.  They don’t feel, eat, drink etc.   It is very educational and helpful if children actually get to feel a dead body.  Never discourage children to touch the dead body of the deceased.  They learn with their fingers.  Make use of the educational opportunities when you see a dead bird or rabbit.  Point out that the reason we bury the body is so that it won’t smell. These things are facts and facts if what children need.  If you don’t provide the facts and you leave empty spots, they fill it in with their imagination and that’s where often the fears come in.

To tell a child that a person went ‘to sleep’ is not good.  They will have trouble falling in sleep later because what if they never wake up.  Telling them that the soul become an angel or a star isn’t true either.  No, tell them that the ‘inner person’ (soul) has moved to God’s world.  That world is either heaven (God’s house) or hell (not God’s house). There the soul lives on.  The older the child is, the more we may and should share the Biblical details about either place.  How much do you tell?  A good guide is to let your children’s question guide you how much you tell.  They will ask, “Where is his soul now? What does he do there?  Will he come back? Does he know about us?  Can he see us?
…”   Their questions are the guide how much they can handle.  There is also nothing wrong when you tell children that you don’t know something.  They will accept that as long as you really don’t know.  Withholding information they ask for isn’t wise and lying about it is sin.  To say a child became a star is a lie.

My five oldest children have experienced the death of their mother and they have all handled it better than I did.  But from the beginning of the process of her terminal illness, I was frank and open with them.  They knew what the doctors told.  I answered their questions as their Mama became comatose.  They touched her when she passed away.  They were present at the funeral in which we actually lowered the casket in front of them (very un-American) and the only one that struggled for a longer time with the confusion was our youngest who was 2 years old and I thought it better not to take him along to the funeral.  That was a mistake for for a long time he would ask me ‘where have you brought Mama?’  I would take him to the grave but that didn’t make any sense because all he saw was grass. Shortly after her death we bought two pigmy goats and sadly, one of the died a couple days later.  So we had another funeral in the back yard and this time I made sure that our youngest was part of that. The visual experience did help him to come to terms with the funeral of his mother.

Honestly and factual as much as the child asks to know … that is in a nutshell my story above.

Pastor Vergunst