How Do I Talk to My Child About Death?
This post is the fifth in our “How do I talk to my child about?” series. We are covering bad language, disabilities, divorce, adoption, death, race, religion, and personal protection. You won’t want to miss these, so be sure to follow us by email on the sidebar and never miss a post!
Today’s post comes from my very good friends, Gabe and Lynne. Our family met them in Kentucky where we were studying at Asbury Theological Seminary. We first met on a playground. We were both there, our kids were playing, and we introduced ourselves. After a bit of talking and getting to know one another, it was getting close to dinner so Lynne invited our whole family over for dinner. Like, we left the playground and followed them to their house! This is a perfect picture of the kind of friends we were to become.
Gabe and Lynne found out on June 8th, 2011, that their sweet baby in utero had anencephaly, a fatal form of spina bifida. This began them on a journey that continues today. They have so kindly agreed to share about how they’ve been talking about death with their older daughter, Sara (and eventually their son Samuel). Thanks so much to you, Gabe and Lynne, for teaching us through your experience and wisdom. We’re so grateful for your authenticity and generosity in opening up your lives to a whole lot of strangers!
When Sara was 2, she became a sister. And when Sara was 2, she lost a sister.
All of this happened within the span of 45 minutes. At 2 Sara couldn’t understand that the baby girl in mommy’s tummy wasn’t going to be with us after she was born. Sara couldn’t understand it in the way a 2-year-old can’t understand algebra. Death was a foreign concept to her then and, in a way, it still is.
So when Annie was born, Lynne and I spent the entire 45 minutes of her life with her alone. In the dim light of the hospital room, I counted every breath. Never has a hospital room been so devoid of noise. Never has a hospital room been so beautifully close to what I imagine heaven to feel like. Lynne and I felt loss, but we felt peace.
Sara came into the room after Annie had finished breathing with us. Her loving grandparents and uncle ushered her into the room. She had no idea of the heartache. The way her face lit up was marvelously reminiscent of her face when receiving an unexpected gift. She couldn’t wait to see her sister. She couldn’t wait to see her and hold her and talk to her. It was emotionally wrenching and wonderfully innocent. I’ll never forget it.
I think for a long time Sara never understood what it meant to die, let alone what it meant for her to have a sister that was here then gone. Lynne and I tried our best to explain heaven and Jesus and life and death without pushing unnecessary heaviness onto her. Even throughout the pregnancy, we were open with Sara about her sister who “has a boo boo and needs to be with Jesus to heal it.” But our explanations always seemed more storybook than meaningful to her. It was as if she could close the book, place it back on a shelf, and move on with other things. We didn’t quite know how to keep it open and bring it to life, though we weren’t sure that’s what Sara needed anyway.
Sara’s 5 now, and a few weeks ago she began to open that book and read. It was something she picked up on her own. She asked about Annie. She asked about “GG” her great-grandmother who passed away before we even knew of our pregnancy with Annie. GG loved Sara, and Sara adored her GG. Now she was asking questions about GG’s and Annie’s whereabouts. “What’s heaven like?” she said one night. As Lynne described heaven and Jesus and healing and joy, Sara turned and whispered, “Mommy, my eyes are getting wet.”
From what Lynne and I can tell, Sara is now beginning to process the death of a sister she never got to know and the great-grandmother of whom she now has only snippets of wonderful memories. We’ve borrowed books from the library. Books like I Had A Friend Named Peter and The Fall of Freddy the Leaf. In terms of drawing her attention to the subject of life and death, they’re great. But we’ve come to understand the emotional processing Sara must undergo is all her own. Lynne and I are like gentle friends sitting on her bedside while she posits the things of God and heaven and hope. We listen more than we speak. When we do speak, it’s not uncommon for us to quietly say, “I don’t know, sweetheart.”
In those quiet moments, we assure her of God’s love, making sure the picture we paint is one we truly believe in and hope for. In our longing for heaven, we imagine Annie, GG, my father, and so many others healed and whole and full of life. So we try to stir that imagination within Sara. Eventually, when he’s old enough, we’ll try to stir such holy imagination within the mind of our little Samuel, too.
Our goal isn’t to relieve Sara of her fear of death. Though my fears of death are somewhat founded on different things, like what would happen to my wife and children, I also share in her fears. I fear the exchange of what I know for what I don’t know. I fear the experience of a body that gives out, whether suddenly or over a period of time. I fear the frightening change of existence, the finality to it all. But what I don’t fear is to believe in something greater than death. I don’t fear having faith in a God who came and faced death and declared his power over it. So when Sara expresses her fear of death, I don’t try to correct her. How could I? Instead, I try to aim her. With one hand I grab hers and with the other I point to Jesus. “We don’t wake up and eat and pray and sleep and live this life alone,” I’ll say. “So don’t worry about dying. He’ll be with us when we die, too.”
So much of our faith relies on an understanding of death, an understanding that doesn’t deny it’s ugliness. We don’t want to deny that either. So those things of the unknown and the finality are just ways of us explaining how much Jesus loves us and loves Sara. Those things give us a way to explain hope and eternity. I guess what I’m really trying to say is this:
If there is an “other side” to parenting a child through loss and grief, neither Lynne nor I can say we’ve arrived. What I suspect is that with each season of Sara’s life, as she moves through new journeys of joy and grief, we’ll be parenting her until she must process our own deaths. I suspect there is no “other side.” At this point in her life, we’re engaging her questions with grace, grace for her but especially for ourselves. And so in the end, she won’t become a casualty of her parents’ heartache for what should have been. Instead, we hope and pray she’ll be a welcomed traveler with us as we’ve allowed love to drive out fear and hope to heal our wounds.