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Helping Children Learn From Death in the Family

Death sucks, no matter how you look at it. Ok, almost however you look at it. There is of course the broader, more significant perspective, from which we may receive comfort and a sort of distance in the knowledge of the whole blink-of-an-eye thing (this activity being of longer duration than the entirety of this earth's mortality)-- oh yeah, and the Plan of Salvation element that makes it all not only worthwhile, but noble to boot, glorious even. Nevertheless, when someone we love dies--hmm, let’s see how I can put this--DEATH SUCKS! And somehow, we parents must help our children learn to walk side by side with it in this life, even if we ourselves, if given the chance, would run away and stop its cold grip from ever touching another.

It’s a heart-wrenching, breath-stealing, life-out-of-control-sending bomb of every nasty substance imaginable, with a lovely lye and slime coating, dropped on our heads. So painful, even with the knowledge of our Savior’s Awesome sacrifice and the promise of eternal togetherness, that as much as I’ve tried, there are no words. (Really, I think I’ve used ‘em all and they don’t come close.) Recall, friends, that Jesus, arriving too late to heal his friend Lazarus, wept at the pain of those Lazarus had left behind. (John 11:35) More than weeping in empathy, “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled.” (John11:33, 38) He knew the keenness of Mary, Lazarus’ sister’s, grief, though certainly He, of all people, knew how fleeting her grief, her life, the duration of this earth’s mortality would be.

The Lord, having given us to each other, to be each other’s keepers, to live in families, in wards, in communities as sisters and brothers in Zion, and relatives of the whole of the human race, gave us the immeasurable gifts of companionship and comfort, romantic love, friendship, and the curious passions of parenthood. In so doing, He also ensured that we’d each (or at least most of us) have to endure some measure of that immeasurable pain when a comrade-in-mortality leaves, seemingly too, too early.

Lazarus’ Mary was granted the rare miracle of having her brother restored to mortal life after four days of death. For most of us, though, there is no waking up to find it all a dream, no Sleeping-Beauty or Snow White ending for those gone on too soon. Death, at least as far as our short-sighted perspective is concerned, is permanent. And did I mention it sucks?

Of the many elements of the whole business that are so hard to reconcile is introducing the mess to our children, and explaining it all in a way that helps increase their understanding of Heavenly Father’s love. Of course family pets, if kept for any length of time, may be an inevitable introduction, but the loss of a beloved animal does not compare to the startling experience of seeing a human being, even a relative who was not well-known, lying motionless in a casket. Nor does it match the flood of grief that swells among a group, pulling us together, pooling around at almost neck-level, amid pall-bearing and potato salad. A six-year-old, whose neck is considerably lower than that of the teary-eyed adults in her midst, might feel swallowed up in the terrifying deluge. Like all situations this life sets upon us, the loss of a loved one is rife with teaching moments.

My husband and I recently faced these unwanted moments when our nephew suddenly died at the age of 19. The circumstances, as they must be with a person so young, were tragic. It was an accidental, violent end of a beautiful and short mortal life. Though we had not seen this young man in a few years, Larry and I were struck, hurt. We wandered a bit, wondering how to support and comfort his sister, looking at our own babies and shuddering at the thought, and doing all we could to help with the set-up, take-down, and participation in the services to honor him. Besides the couple of days prior to these events which we spent visiting with those closest to him, vainly trying to find something we could do to make things a little better, there was the viewing, the funeral, the dedication of the grave, and the “celebration of life” at my Sister-in-Law’s home. Through it all, we were aware of our five little children, ages two to six. First, of course, that their behavior didn’t distract from the real and proper focus of the events, and then, that they were able to assimilate this new reality as healthily as possible.

Among the questions and concerns they had were these:

As heartbreakingly child-like as these fears are, they are also heartbreakingly universal--from the fear of being buried alive, to the impulse to try and bargain with the Lord, it’s all balled up in each of us, whether we’re six or not. As I watched my sweet boy at the open casket where my Sister-in-Law’s sweet boy’s form lay still, he touched his arm gently, weeping as much as I, and whispered, “bye cousin, I guess I’ll see you in heaven.” The soberness and universality of grief over death smacked me in the gut. For several years I thought I was square with my mother dying at the age of 41, when I myself was 19. Lately, however, as I draw nearer to my forties, I have to say I no longer feel so at peace with this deal. And yet, the overwhelming pain I lived in in the months after her death is long gone, and I do have a firm testimony in Father’s wisdom and love, and the joyous reunion that awaits, assuming my own righteous living. Oh friends, how can we explain to our children what we so often can not understand or accept ourselves, even with strong testimonies of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His saving grace? As in all things, we must let the Sprit help us, and remember that the lessons, as all true principles, will need to be re-taught and re-learned throughout their lives, and ours. Repetition and a sense that questioning is appropriate will help the process.

So here’s a short and by no means comprehensive list of what to help children understand when there is a death in the family:

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