Helping a Child Cope with Death

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For many people, death is a scary subject. When a child experiences the death of a family member or friend for the first time, it is important to carefully walk them through the experience. Most of the time parents don’t do this very well leaving children with some kind of warped, cartooned understanding about what happens when someone dies. Parents say things like, “Nana is with us all the time. She’s an angel watching over us every day.”  Recently I heard a Christian parent tell his daughter that “the big man in the sky” wanted grandpa to be with Him. While all these attempts to bring death to a child’s level are understandable, they may not be beneficial.

When my daughter Madelyn was in first grade she had a good friend named Colby who was in her class at school and her Sunday school class at church. Unfortunately her friend was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that ended his life after several months of suffering. As parents we struggled with how to tell Madelyn what was happening in a way that made sense to a first grader but that was also biblically truthful.

Family ministry is about equipping parents. When a loved one or a friend of a child dies, we need to help parents talk with their children in biblically true, age-appropriate ways.  Here are some things we might consider teaching the parents of the kids in our ministries when dealing with death.

  1. Don’t make up another word or phrase for death when it is time to break the news. Sometimes in an effort to shield our children from the emotional impact of death we often uses phrases that can be utterly confusing for them. Common examples of this include, “She has gone to be with Jesus” or “He is in a better place now”  or even “He passed away.” While these phrases are true they don’t communicate the terminal reality of the situation. They may be appropriate later but the initial conversation should be clear. When we told our Maddie about her friend Colby we chose to say it like this. “You know your friend Colby has been sick for a long time. Today, Colby died and you will not see him again until you go to heaven.” This actually helped Maddie begin to grieve with clarity. She immediately understood the finality of the situation.
  2. Don’t give them an unbiblical picture of reality. I think it is damaging to convey a biblical untruth to a child in an effort to help them cope with death. The biggest one that I hear over and over again in the Christian community is this one. “She’s an angel now, looking down from heaven.” Biblically, no she’s not. Instead she is something better. She is a daughter of the King, living in His presence in a place where there is no more suffering, tears, or pain. Let’s paint the biblical picture correctly starting when they are young.
  3. Fill them with legitimate hope in Christ. 1 Thessalonians 4:1-18 is one of my favorite verses to share as I lead a family in their grief. It starts this way. “But we do not want you to be uninformed brothers about those who are asleep, that you many not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We can lead parents to share with our children the message of hope in Jesus Christ based on His promises. This biblical hope is very comforting when dealing with death. Help parents fill their children with hope in Christ in moments of grief. Simple verses like John 3:16 illustrate this hope. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life.”

So how can you help parents help their children deal with death? I think parents just need a little practical help. You could write an article, a blog post, or make a short video and post it on the web. You could share these 3 bullet points in 3 minutes and give parents help in their efforts to lead their child through the experience of the death of a friend or family member. Be proactive. When you know of situations like this, insert yourself.  Call the parents or go by their home for a visit. Give them some simple hints for leading their child to deal with death. Whatever you do, don’t let this opportunity slip by. Family ministry is all about equipping families to deal with the hard stuff.

Brian Haynes

Brian Haynes

Brian Haynes serves as lead pastor at Bay Area First Baptist church in the Houston area. He is the author of the books, Shift: What it Takes to Finally Reach Families Today, and The Legacy Path: Discover Intentional Spiritual Parenting. Brian is married to Angela and they have three daughters, Hailey, Madelyn, and Eden.
Brian Haynes

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