As it happens, we had a family bereavement this week, as my grandad died at 97. These are different types of death but, as I’ve told my children when they ask about degrees of sadness based on the age of the person, it’s always sad when someone dies. And it’s difficult to grieve with children!
Despite being something we all face, death isn’t something we want to dwell on ourselves, and isn’t something many people chat with children about until it’s absolutely necessary because they know someone who has died.
Before I had children, I co-authored the Held in Hope series of books aimed at Christian children aged 3 to 6. The books explored experiences of sickness and death, drawing on what the Bible says about them. The expertise on grieving came from chaplains within the paediatric chaplaincy network, especially those at Birmingham Children’s Hospital. This is an incredible team, which deals gently, graciously and spiritually with people in the midst of sickness and death.
When I wrote these books, I recommended that people read them with their children before they had the need to chat about death. So when my girls were 2 and 3, I decided I should take my own advice. At first, I thought they didn’t really get the books as they seemed to take them in just like The Gruffalo or The Highway Rat. However, a few months later we had a surprising conversation.
3-year-old: “Mummy, there’s no pain in heaven, is there?”
Me: (Surprised and delighted that one of the things in the Jesus Still Loves Joe book has obviously been heard!) “No.”
2-year-old: “Yeah, Jesus, he wipes all the pain away like wiping up milk.”
Me: (Stunned pause. Makes mental note of this deep theological response.)
As my friends’ children reached the age of about 3 or 4, many of them, knowing I’d worked on this project, started to ask me how to talk with their children about death as their little ones were asking questions. This usually wasn’t in response to a family bereavement, but as part of their general curiosity. I know it’s tough, and it’s one of many topics to chat about, but I really think it’s a wise idea to get talking about death before we need to, if only because it’s often hard to talk at all when we do need to.
Three years after we first read Jesus Still Loves Joe, my children have experienced the first death of a person they know. My now 6-year-old told me today that it’s harder when someone you know dies, as you have memories. She’s not wrong. I am so sad, and it’s really hard to have good conversations when you’re trying not to cry.
We’ve had deep conversations about death, heaven and hell, burial and cremation, funerals and what people wear. In the middle of these conversations, my 6-year-old told me: “You know, Mummy, just before Great-Grandad died, I think Jesus came into his room and took away all his pain, anxiety and weakness and made him just like us. Then he made a shaft of light so that he could see all the pictures of his family on the wall.”
“Despite being something we all face, death isn’t something many people chat with children about until it’s absolutely necessary”
What a beautiful picture, and how amazing to be comforted by my daughter in my time of sadness. It’s been so hard but so good to be able to continue our chats about death and grief, and to meet God in the middle of them. I hope these resources help you do the same.
Books and videos
Jesus Still Loves Joe: a book about a child whose sister has died. It explores grief and how we are always loved by God no matter how we feel.
Sam’s Special Book: a book aimed at Christian children aged 3 to 6. Again, it explores grief and how we are loved by God.
We worked hard to make the books answer some of the questions young children have, and there is a series of online films for each book that you could watch with your children. There are two versions of each film: one that is read straight through, and one where the film stops every few pages to ask a couple of questions. This is helpful for parents who might struggle to know how to even begin a conversation about sickness and death with their child, and for those who are grieving themselves as it’s particularly tricky to help children grieve when we’re grieving ourselves.
The books are available from godventure. org.uk and the videos are available here.
Practical things we’ve found helpful:
- Making space in our schedule for downtime, which allows time for conversations, crying and feeling sad
- Watching Inside Out, a film in which we discover that sadness is an important part of life and (SPOILER ALERT!) there’s a really sad bit where Bing Bong dies, which gave us a good chance to sob
- Reading The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson. This book really expresses the sadness of loss and preciousness of memories in a beautiful way. I’ve used it to explore grief in workshops. This week, when my daughter chose to read it, she found the questions I’d written in the back, such as: “I wonder which part of the story you like best”, “I wonder which part of this story could be about someone you love dying” and “I wonder what part of this story is a bit like Jesus”, surprisingly easy to answer. And they gave her an opportunity to talk about death, loss, Jesus and heaven in a profound but very childlike and appropriate way.
- Creating a memory box: a small cardboard box containing items that remind you of the person. Light a candle or plant a tree or shrub to remember the person who has died.
- Spending time being sad and comforting each other.
Here’s a simple activity you could do at any time, which explores Jesus’ words in John 14:2: “My Father’s house has plenty of room; if it were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?”
The activity is quite simple. We imagine what our room in heaven might be like:
Create a house. The size will depend on how many people you have and how many rooms you want. If you’re doing it in your family, you could just tape four A4 sheets together and draw a large house across them. Paint a red roof or cut a sheet of A4 red paper in half lengthways, cut off the corners, and attach it to the top. Cut A6 pieces of white paper to be the rooms, then spend some time imagining and creating your rooms in ‘God’s house’. I’ve found that, as we do this, it allows us to find hope during a time of sadness, to imagine heaven and the place where the person we miss is now, and to anticipate meeting Jesus and living with God for ever with happiness.
The Bible Reading Fellowship’s Parenting for Faith has many resources about death, including one called: “What do you do when you and your toddler come upon a funeral procession?” You can find this video as well as information about the resources and services Care for the Family provide for bereaved parents and children here.
Counsellor William Taylor will explore this subject further in the next issue of Premier Youth and Children’s Work.