Post Author: Leigh Benish
Recently a fellow young clergywoman shared a story* in which she was talking to her five-year-old daughter about death. Mom was preparing her daughter to visit the funeral home where the child’s great-grandmother was lying in wake. She was explaining what it means to have a body in a casket but reassured her daughter, “It’s only her body in there.”
Her daughter listened and, trying to understand, said, “Okay. So…not her head?”
As a pastor and a mom of a young child, I am frequently asked how to talk to children, especially young children, about death. Dying and the afterlife are difficult concepts for many adults to grasp. If we struggle with articulating it for ourselves, how could kids possibly understand?
Young children are concrete thinkers. They hear and understand things quite literally. In the story above, the mom was insinuating that the great-grandmother’s soul was with God, but her daughter interpreted her words to imagine a decapitated person. Because young children take everything literally, it is essential that we use terms such as “died”and “dead.” Euphemisms such as “passed away” are confusing and misleading for children. In a way that is appropriate and accessible for each child’s developmental stage, it is vital for them to know the finality of death.
When talking about death with children, it is also essential that they understand life. A good first step is to teach them how the body works. Talk about the vital organs and processes that keep it alive. Help them listen for a heartbeat, take big breaths, feel a pulse. Once this becomes part of the conversation, explaining death becomes slightly easier. Death happens when those organs and vital functions stop working: the dead person no longer eats, swallows, farts, breathes in and out, and so on.
Explaining physical death is a place to start, but the conversation cannot end there. Many more questions are bound to arise, and each must be addressed in order to help children process their grief. This is often where our role as clergy becomes important. We are called in not just to provide pastoral care in a time of crisis but also to help make sense of all that is happening.
Shortly before my son turned three, he asked me (completely out of the blue as we were in the car driving home from daycare), what happens when you die. I knew the question would likely pop up some day, but I had not thought of what my answer would be. Caught off guard, I answered with what I thought was a decent response on the fly: “Your body stops working and you go to live with Jesus in Heaven.”
He accepted that for a moment and then he commented, confused, that he thought Jesus lived on earth with us.
Just as we have to use clear language when talking to children about physical death, our treatment of the afterlife must also be clear. This is especially difficult when what we know of the afterlife is limited.
I recently talked with a friend who was struggling to answer her preschool-aged daughter’s questions about heaven because my friend herself didn’t fully know what she believed about what happens after death. We cannot try to explain something to a child that we haven’t wrestled with as adults. As clergy, we are called to walk with both children and their parents, helping each person develop their own understanding of the afterlife.
Our own theological backgrounds and personal interpretations of scripture shape what we believe about the afterlife. Before we can help a child understand the afterlife, we just first explore our own understandings. Some things to ponder include:
- What do I believe about the existence of Heaven? Hell?
- Are they physical places or spiritual realms?
- What do these places look like?
- Who goes to these places? Who determines that?
However you answer these questions, there are a few truths found in scripture that can be shared with children of any age which may bring comfort and peace:
There is plenty of room for everyone in Heaven and Jesus has created a special place for each of us. (John 14:1-3)
There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. (Romans 8:38-39)
In Heaven, there is no crying, pain, or sadness. (Revelation 21:4)
Heaven is filled with joyful celebration. (Psalm 16:11)
All kinds of people from all kinds of places will be there, too. (Luke 13:29)
These are difficult conversations. As children grow, so will their questions and their comprehension. As we continue to explore what death and the afterlife means in our own lives, may we do our best to walk beside God’s beloved children, helping them to grow in their faith.
*Story shared with permission
Rev. Leigh Benish is Pastor of Hill United Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pennsylvania, where she has been adjusting to the life of a solo pastor since October 2018. Prior to that, Leigh spent five years as Associate Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Temple, Texas.
An Iowa native, she has appreciated living in different areas of the country as God has called her to serve in various contexts and cultures. Leigh enjoys reading, going for walks, and spending time with her husband, David, and son, Gabriel.
Image by: Anna-Louise
Used with permission