Teaching children to deal with death

The redoubtable Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of St. John's the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Hingham, MA, and co-owner of the Lent Madness franchise, has written a perceptive column about teaching children to deal with death. His essay is all the more piquant because the death that occasioned his musings was that of his children's pet ferret.

He writes:

When we shield our children from grief we do them no favors. Yes, there are age-appropriate ways to introduce kids to the concept of mortality. We started the conversation years ago with goldfish – I’ve conducted more toilet-side burials than I care to remember. We’ve also taken the boys to the occasional wake or funeral of family members or friends, allowing them to ask questions and helping to guide the conversation.

Over the years, I’ve seen families grieve in healthy ways that unite and I’ve seen families grieve in unhealthy ways that divide. When things get nasty it’s often the result of either a broken relationship with the deceased or an inability to face death. For people of faith, death is not the end nor is it the final goodbye. Rather it is an entrance into a larger life and thus death is merely a temporary farewell. This doesn’t make grief un-Christian – hardly – but in time it does take the sting of lasting anger and bitterness out of our hearts.

The healthy approach is to acknowledge the pain and the myriad emotions of grief. We let the boys grieve in their own ways and gave them space to do so even while walking with them through our own sadness. We prayed; we talked; we acknowledged the pain and loss we were all feeling. This isn’t a magic formula; it’s not always neat and tidy. But just as God weeps when we weep and rejoices when we rejoice, we can do the same with our children.

What advice do you have about helping children to deal with death?

Comments (2)

A few months ago, a family in the parish with a young son had a relative die. The relative was the son's cousin, who was about the same age as him. Everyone was at the hospital, and I suggested to the parents that the son see the recently deceased cousin's body, still in the room. I walked into the room with him. He was a little disturbed, but it gave him closure. I was glad I could be there with him for this moment, and I think everyone was glad that this happened this way.

Death is a reality, and kids need to know that it's not just what they see in movies and games. I think knowing about it and being exposed to it, gives them a sense of respect for life and death.

I doubt that children can be taught to deal with death. It's not like learning to drive. Children get their cues from the people around them -- adults must be models in dealing with death and other personal situations.

(I was suspicious of the teams of counselors sent into schools after a tragic or shocking event. It seemed that their role was to teach the kids how to be properly traumatized.)

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