I remember very clearly a story that was told to me about a five year old boy whose father died. The boy did not really understand what was happening as he went through the motions with his family. But when he was at the gravesite, and he suddenly understood that they were going to bury his father in that deep hole, he threw himself at the casket and sobbed and would not let go.
My heart still breaks when I think of that story. The boy is a teenager by now and I have lost all contact with the family. But it got me thinking about children and when it is appropriate to teach them about death.
A century ago and beyond, death was much more a part of life. Cemeteries on the edge of major cities were considered by laborers to be great places to go for picnics on weekends and breathe fresh air. (Now these cemeteries are in the midst of the down town areas.) Homes used to be built with doors wide enough to accommodate coffins for wakes which were traditionally held in homes. People would lie in state at their homes for days. Dying at home, saying good bye, and grieving together were a part of life.
I think that was a much healthier way of dealing with death. Now we keep everything as sterile as possible, and as far away as possible. I have even had people tell me they prefer that funerals not be in churches, because it makes church creepy. Of all the places where we should be comfortable with death, it's in church! The message of the church is that in Jesus Christ, death has lost it's sting, and Christ has the finial victory. The resurrection is reason to rejoice, even as we grieve.
So I have made it a point to talk about death with Shannon, my four year old. She has had conversations about death with us since she was two. I don't force the subject, but it comes up if it is not avoided. This is of course especially true for me as a pastor. I had a funeral today. Shannon came in and asked if I would please not go to work today and take her to the YMCA to swim. (She keep pestering me to stay home all day- after all, her father does!) I told her that I had to go to officiate at a funeral. She knows what that is; we've talked about it before.
Tonight at bed time, she was asking more questions about dying. She asked me what would happen if she died before my husband and I. I told her we would be very, very, very, very sad and that it was unlikely it would happen that way. She was teary. I told her about heaven, about how it would probably happen that her grandparents would die and go to heaven, and that her mommy and daddy would not die until she was grown and had kids of her own. Then I explained that she would probably die when she had grown children and even grandchildren, and then she would see all of us in heaven. She asked how we get to heaven, how we get to the sky. I told her that we don't know for sure until we die, but that God takes care of it. She asked if Jesus and heaven are very far away, and I said they are in a different place, but that Jesus is also right here with us all the time. She asked if they have birthday parties, and get to play outside. I assured her the weather in heaven is always great, and there are plenty of parties and time for playing outside. Then she asked what Jesus does all day when people are not dying. I explained that people die every day and he is busy welcoming them home to heaven.
She cried softly some more, saying it made her sad. I told her that was alright.
I'm hopeful that I am helping my daughter face life and death with courage, hope, and trust. But who knows, maybe I am setting her up for years of therapy! I guess I won't know until I know.