Children, Death and Good Friday
I've had the privilege these last few weeks of spending time with a family who recently experienced the still birth of their son. The family already has two small children, ages 3 and 6. The six year old told me how he felt his heart was "breaking into a million pieces" when he found out his brother died. Through the grace of God, the family and children are coping remarkably well. However, a situation like this brings the reality of death particularly close to home.
Whether parenting or working with children, stress is always put on being "age appropriate". This can be a difficult thing to do; to broach sensitive and frightening topics in a way that maintains the seriousness and integrity of the subject matter, but in a way that doesn't scare the child on one hand, or dip into false sentimentality on the other.
Particularly with death we seem to prefer to sugar coat our explanations to children, even going so far as to distort our Christian beliefs to make them "kid-friendly". People may, with the best of intentions, say things like "God needed another angel in heaven, so he took your brother," or "Your mother was just too good for this Earth, so God took her to heaven." These may sound silly (and in truth, they are) but I've heard them from well meaning Christians.
Good Friday is especially tricky for families with small children. There is no real way to side step the issue of Jesus death. The Cross is simply the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Jesus wasn't just a nice man going around doing nice things (though many of our children's picture books would like to make us think this), Jesus is the God who died. And not a particularly easy death either, one that doesn't translate well into children's stories.
I think to talk intelligently and age-appropriately about death, we need to get back to what we really believe as Christians. We know and believe that every living thing dies. Even very small children know this. Plants die, animals die and people die. We also have a deep sense that this is profoundly backward. There is something unnatural about death. It's something that just shouldn't be. God created Man to live forever on Earth. And when God sets out to do something, I wouldn't recommend getting in His way. But that's exactly what Death did. And that's why it had to be defeated. When we talk about death to anyone, especially children, we need to keep in mind the whole picture.
I remember when Gordon, my youngest sibling, was about three, he learned that my grandfather died quite tragically as a young man. He must have been processing this as he went to my father one afternoon and said to him, "Daddy, your daddy died, didn't he?" My father said, yes, he had. "Don't worry," Gordon told him, "God will make him alive again!" Really, that's all a child, or anyone for that matter, needs to know. This isn't to negate the reality of grief and mourning, however. We don't "grieve like those who have no hope" (Thess. 4), true but we still grieve. Jesus, after all, wept for Lazarus, his friend who he would shortly resurrect. (John 11)
Like the six year old boy who's brother was still-born, death is a reality for all of us, even the very young. There is no such thing as a topic that is off-limits. If a child is asking about it, they are ready to talk about it, and there is nothing so big or frightening that it can't be talked about simply. Remember that saying "I'll tell you when you're older" is effectively to say "Go find out from your friends." I also don't believe that it's beneficial to sit a child down one day and "explain" death to them. Children don't need to go to a seminar on death, or sexuality or any of the "difficult" subjects of life. What they need are parents who live out the Christian truths on these matters, teaching them diligently to their children, talking of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise (Deut. 6). This kind of "on the way" teaching is ultimately the kind that matters.
There is also the practical issue of having children at Good Friday services. Good Friday is not an "easy" day, and I'm sure it would do a disservice if it was. Parents will have to decide individually what is right for their child. Christ's death is told very simply and plainly in the Gospels. The writers never try to work the reader up into emotional frenzies when discussing the Passion (unlike certain Hollywood directors) and we should never, ever do that to a child. "Even though Jesus didn't do anything wrong, he was killed. But three days later, God made him alive again."
It's the same when we talk with children about death in general. Be simple and real. Avoid saying things like "Grandma died because she got sick." Does that mean that all sick people die? "Grandma died because she was old." Does that mean that only old people die? And don't forget to address the question behind the question. If a child asks, "Will you die someday?" they are expressing the fear that the parent may die and leave them all alone. Reassure them that there are many people who love and care for them. People die because that's what living things do. It makes us angry and sad, and that's alright. But even on Good Friday, let's not forget about Resurrection Sunday, when the stone is rolled back and and our lives come to their ultimate beginning.