When someone dies, and we are enveloped by our own grief, the thought of explaining what has happened to a child or grandchild can be truly overwhelming. Whether the death is sudden or is the culmination of an extended period of grieving, finding the right words is so, so hard.
A few years after our children came to us, our family pet — a much beloved border collie named Missy — was hit by a truck. Judging by the pile we found by the side of the road, she couldn’t have suffered. But the horror and shock quickly gave way to a kind of numbness that felt like swimming through mountains of batted grey cotton. Jut awful.
“I’ll bury her, if you tell the kids,” Craig offered. I’m not sure who got the harder task. All of us cried as I held the kids and waited for the initial tears to subside. “Why did Missy have to DIE?” Chris asked.
The simple answer was not the right answer. Missy died because she escaped the confines of our yard and wandered into a busy street. But this is not really what my son was asking. He had endured so much loss already — nearly his entire original family, except his sister. Why had God allowed so much pain to enter into one little life?
“When God sends a baby into the world,” I found myself saying, “He sends three things along: a gift to share, a burden to carry, and a job to do. When that job is done, if we stay close to God, he takes us back to heaven to be with him forever. Christopher, you have already been such a gift to us, and you have so much more to share. The burdens you have carried are so very big, and so very hard. I can only imagine that one day God is going to give you a VERY special job to do. Something that you could only do if you stayed very close to God. All that you have suffered, all that you have lost, can help you stay close to God if you choose. God does not cause our pain — he cries along with us, when he sees us suffer. And he always helps us carry it if we ask.”
I meant every word. And as the years went by, I realized that my son had heard me not just with his ears, but with his heart. He still feels the loss, but he trusts in the goodness of God. This, I think, is the best we can hope for when we explain death and grief to our children, that they understand that (1) death is a part of life and (2) suffering is never wasted when we offer it back to God.
In my last article, about starting the adventure of elder care with my mother, I mentioned that a woman named Jennifer Scott had sent me links to a couple of articles about coping with grief. These are not written specifically from a faith-based perspective. However, I think the information about what children are capable of handling at various developmental stages is useful, and so I wanted to offer it here as a resource for you.
Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids About Death
Preparing for the Death of a Terminally-Ill Loved One: What to Expect, and How to Help the Entire Family Move Forward
Letting Children Share in Grief
The Bereaved Employee: Returning to Work
How to Create a Peaceful At-Home Hospice for Your Loved One
Keeping the Peace While Settling a Family Estate