Helping Children Learn From Death in the Family
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:
- But won’t he suddenly wake up again? What if he’s already in the ground and can’t get out?
- I thought people only die when they’re very, very old grandpas. Can anyone die, even little kids like me?
- What if all my brothers die and I’m the only one left? Or what if you die, Mommy, or Daddy?
- I never got to know my big cousin. Now I never will!
- If I pray really, really hard and ask Heavenly Father to let Cousin come back to life, He’ll do it, right?
- What will happen to his body in the ground?
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:
- The purpose of the viewing/funeral/memorial/wake/etc
Younger children in particular may have difficulty differentiating these gatherings from a party or reunion. The tone and setting of the occasion will make for some variation of behavior. For example, my nephew was a very laid back kid, and to best honor him, his parents explicitly asked that everyone wear casual clothing and that we view the entire series of events as a “celebration of life.” (These services were not held in the chapel, of course). Nevertheless, there is still a level of respect that children need to be made aware of before attending any such service. In the days leading up to the viewing, my husband and I drilled our series of priorities into their little heads. We are going there to:
- Comfort those who were closest to Cousin--his Mommy, Daddy, and sister
- Honor and remember him
- Say goodbye
- The permanence of death in mortal terms--the difference between death and sleep
- The impermanence of death--the glory of resurrection
This is a bit more difficult to convey. Someone in a casket is clearly not asleep, to all but the youngest children, but the idea of heaven, “living with Heavenly Father” as we have chosen to describe it in our home, is much less concrete. The classic glove and hand analogy, familiar to all missionaries, primary teachers, and LDS parents alike, is very apropos here.
- We have the chance to reunite with those we love and to retain the familial relationships formed in this life
The great gift of mortality is that righteous mommies and daddies will still be mommies and daddies after this life; husbands and wives will be forever tied in our true love stories; sisters and brothers will be siblings forever; aunts, grandpas, cousins--all tied for eternity. The intricate and unbreakable chain we create through Christ’s sacrifice, the Sealing power, and faithful living and repentance mean that as hollow as the sentiment may seem in the moment, it really will be all right.
- The absolute benevolence and love of Heavenly Father
Fears that even children or mommies or daddies might die, frustration that asking Father to bring someone back doesn’t work, and similar revelations may lead even adults to question His love. Reiterating to our children from an early age that Heavenly Father has a plan for each of us, that it is a plan of love, that He knows all and will do only what is best, will allow the Spirit to testify to their small and mighty hearts of these truths.
- Whatever happens, we can handle it
Along with His perfect benevolence comes His promise that we will not be asked to bear anything beyond our capacity. Difficult as this sometimes is to believe, it is true. Frequently, the mere fact that we are still here, breathing and moving, however slowly, is a testament to this truth. We can emphasize that people usually don’t die until they are old grandpa-men and grandma-ladies, but that if such a thing were to occur to someone we love we would survive and overcome, with His tender nurturing.
- The sacredness of life
While Heaven is our TRUE home, we are here for very important reasons. Every life is precious, and what we do here matters.
Teaching children to accept death and grow nearer their Father in its face is maybe one millionth of parenting's challenges. As we fall to our knees and implore Him to give us solace and understanding in our grief, we have the right and duty to supplicate on behalf of our children, that they may grow in wisdom and grace, that all these things will be consecrated for their gain. (2 Nephi 2:22)
And as you go about nurturing and pleading, praising cleverness and kindness, correcting missteps, handing your testimonies to your little ones in all these circumstances as the truest gift you have to share--fall to your knees once more, friends, clasp the ones you plead for to you fervently and thank your Father for every millisecond you have to hold their breathing bodies, caress soft hair and sweet faces, to look into their baby-souls, and be warm, alive, and mortal together, as you all--as we all--prepare to meet Him again, and to rejoice with all those we’ve lost for a moment.
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