Death and Dying: Talking to Kids

October 16, 2014 Length: 20:20

Elissa offers some suggestions for guiding children through death and dying.

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Welcome to Raising Saints. We lost a beloved member of the family over the summer. My husband’s 89-year-old Uncle Dan was one of my favorite people in this world, and a fixture in our home. Dan found something to celebrate in every person he met. If you had been a guest for dinner at my house, or if you waited on him at a restaurant, or if you had the good luck to serve as his nurse, he would have looked you in the eyes and been genuinely interested in you. He’d ask about your family heritage, your interests, and then he’d introduce you around to everyone as his delightful new friend, the next president of the United States, or a five-star gourmet barbecue master. He took pleasure in knowing people and celebrating the good he could find in them. And while Dan was not perfect, he truly embodied that “be the bee” strategy that Elder Paisios encouraged. He had emphasized the good in everything: every closed door was a new beginning, and every person he ever met was his new friend.

Dan was hospitalized in June, and we visited him all the time until finally in July we sat at his deathbed and said good-bye. We’ve been guiding our children through this process of watching a loved one decline and then fall asleep in the Lord, and it occurs to me we should have an episode on how we talk with kids about death and dying, because that’s difficult territory, made worse by the fact that we’re usually coping with our own grief at the same time that we shepherd our children through theirs.

Our family has an unusual level of familiarity with this topic, because we’ve been through this wringer a few times. In particular, in 2005, our fourth child, our son Luka, died very unexpectedly of SIDS. Just as we were faced with the most profound grief we’ve ever experienced, we also had a houseful of big sisters who needed us. Their little brother had died, and their parents were so sad. We were thrust into a crash course on how to guide children through death and dying. At that time, our children’s kuma, or godmother, who’s a child psychologist, leapt onto an airplane to come to our assistance. She grabbed a stack of books on child grief and read them on the flight to Texas, and then handed them to me. Armed with some expert advice, we began the very long journey of grieving as a family.

We have children at various ages, and each of them handles death differently. It varies by personality, but it also varies by developmental stage. So a child who goes through grief once as a four-year-old will experience it again in a new way when they become a six-year-old. As they grow through various stages, they’ll have to reprocess their grief in different ways.

First and foremost, as the adults in the situation, we often want to avoid discussing scary things. They’re scary for us, and they’re scary for the kids, but it’s important that we not try to protect the kids from the truth. When we withhold information, our kids fill in gaps themselves. So if a child knows that a person is sick or dying, and we avoid explaining exactly what’s wrong with them or if we give them vague answers when they ask us questions, they’re going to fill in with their own information. But where will they get their information if you don’t give it? They’ll hear little bits and pieces of conversation and they’ll observe our own mood changes and sadness, then they’ll use their imagination to create an explanation that makes sense to them.

So if you don’t give an explanation, they make one up. Trouble is, kids engage in magical thinking. For instance, if they have a baby brother who was crying too much or sucking up too much attention, and they’ve ever thought, “Man, I wish that kid weren’t always stealing all my limelight,” then when he dies, they may imagine that they killed him with those thoughts. Or if you have an elderly relative and you’re visiting them frequently, the kids may occasionally think to themselves, “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to come to this hospital again.” That’s a totally natural thought, but when the person dies, the child may think that they wished him to death, because they didn’t want to visit any more.

When kids are left to make sense of things with their imagination, the ideas they come up with are usually worse than the real thing, so when they are asking why someone is sick, why someone has died, we should be ready to explain whatever it is. “His heart stopped working” or “A blood clot formed and caused damage” or “His liver was getting hard and useless and stopped doing its job.” Sometimes we’re sad about the situation and use the idea of protecting our kids to allow us to avoid expressing what’s happening. It’s like an escape for us, that we can gloss over an illness or protect our kids from the truth, but in the end we create an information vacuum, which our kids will fill with something far scarier and more problematic than what’s really happening.

So we need to be honest with our kids, and we need to be ready to explain what’s wrong with sick loved ones and to acknowledge death, while at the same time being reassuring. There’s a balance to be achieved, because perfect honesty would say, “Yes, any one of us can die at any moment,” but kids need security and stability. They need to know that someone will be around to take care of them, to feed them and to tuck them in at night. So it’s also okay to say, “I’m going to grow old and you’re going to grow old. When we are very, very old, we’ll die.” And as long as that’s probably true, then it’s fine. It might surprise parents to know that when kids ask about their parents’ demise, they’re usually just checking to see if there’s a plan, a safety net to catch them if you leave them. Be quick to tell them the plan. Whatever godparent or family member or good friend has been lined up to parent in your absence should be named. It’s remarkable how quickly their worry fades when they know that you’ve made arrangements for them.

In our household, we’re pretty straightforward about death. We bring our children to open-casket funerals, though I wouldn’t if my child expressed great fear or reluctance. And we speak openly about loved ones who have died. We pray for them by name every evening in our family prayers, never putting them away or to the side, never forgetting them, but demonstrating that they are still a part of this community, this communion. And that leads us to the less-practical and more philosophical aspect. We should ask ourselves, “What is the traditional Orthodox response to death?” Well, in a traditional Orthodox society, people should be dying at home. A sick grandparent might be living with the family, and their decline and death would happen right there in the home, with the children all around.

It’s not Orthodox to hide death or deny it. Indeed, the truly Christian response to a dying person is the same response we should have to every person we meet: love. To love a dying person is to take care of them in their illness, to offer love and compassion, to spend time at their side, and to pray, pray, pray for the alleviation of suffering and for their salvation. We Orthodox do something. We pray. We light candles. We feed people and care for them. All humans need things to do to manifest their faith, and that especially applies to children.

So once we’ve offered children the truth about a dying loved one, we need to give them something to do. Finding their own role in the process of dying is very important, and it helps them to understand death as simply another part of our lives. What can a child do? Well, children can do plenty. They can visit dying people. They can visit the bereaved family after they go. They can draw pictures and write poems to offer as gifts. They can offer comfort and love in their very presence. They could bake cookies. And they can do the one thing that is most useful: they can pray.

We sometimes treat prayer like a last resort. We say stupid things like, “All that’s left to do is pray,” but truly prayer is probably the most useful thing we do for one another, whether we’re healthy, declining, dying, and even after we die. Our Church offers beautiful memorial services and prayers for the dead. When we lost our son, we were invited to a non-denominational support group, and I was very struck by the very great effort they were making to create some tradition, some ritual that would help them deal with their grief. They did balloon releases and they made Christmas ornaments. People were hard at work trying to create a ritual that would have some meaning and offer some comfort to grieving families.

Even though so many Americans outside of Orthodoxy might think that they don’t want ritual in their life, I see people always reaching for something they can create, a way to take some kind of action that has symbolic meaning, but what we want is more than just symbolism.  People are trying to think something that will make a mark on eternity, a way to reach out and offer something from our own heart which will memorialize our lost ones in an irreversible, utterly permanent way. Especially for parents who lose babies and young children, our children have left the earth so soon; we’re struck by how they’ve been erased, leaving no mark behind. Parents feel powerless, yearning to memorialize their children, but all they have are silly gestures people have dreamt up, like balloon releases.

It was at that time when we lost our son that I truly came to see what a treasure Orthodoxy is. We don’t have to invent ritual; we have actions of profound significance, sacraments and services that bring us into communion with dead people. Our actions are not merely symbolic; they are sacramental. They stand at a junction point where the heavens bow down to our world, where the eternal kingdom of heaven joins this world of living, breathing bodies.

My son is gone, but my work as his mother is not finished. I can pray for him, I can offer kolyva, I can light candles. When I sing, “Memory eternal,” I both request and testify that my child lives forever in the eternal, loving memory of God—not my limited memory, nor the all-too-weak memory of the community, but in God’s holy and eternal memory. The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Being remembered and recognized by the Lord means that we have eternal life in the kingdom; we’re not lost and forgotten in death, but remembered and kept alive in communion with the holy Trinity and the holy Church.

When our loved ones die, we pray, “Memory eternal,” with the faith that they are living in the kingdom. We can teach our children to say these prayers and to understand what they mean so that they, too, can join in the work of prayer and have the satisfaction of doing something to help when they’re faced with loss. In our house we pray, “For those who have died in the hope of the Resurrection,” and we list our lost loved ones every night. We train the kids to do the work of prayer so that they instinctively know what to do when someone falls asleep in the Lord. That is no small gift. We are all so helpless in the face of death, and yet some of us know what prayers to pray when someone dies. We shouldn’t underestimate how helpful and beautiful and profoundly useful that is.

Everyone of us feels powerless when death looms, as we should. We’re meant to stare down our own mortality, and that’s a scary thing for children. They’re so often powerless, and especially at these times, but when we can do something to help, when we can pray and comfort people, we’re empowered, and the fear dissipates. Praying is doing something useful, and so is making kolyva and offering the memorial in the parish with the whole community. We gather everyone else together and we get them to pray for our loved ones, too, keeping them in the Church community and reminding ourselves of the verses that inspired the kolyva, where Christ teaches that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” That fruit comes after death. Does the fruit we bear here on earth not even compare to the fruit that we can bear after we die? That’s a pretty amazing statement, and it runs counter to the assumptions we make.

We tend to think that what is real and what matters is our life here on earth. We hope that people who live good and fruitful lives will find a reward, a kind of consolation prize, in heaven: the real thing is the life on earth, and heaven is some vague, happy thing afterward. It makes heaven an afterthought, an unreal place, that’s happy but somehow merely a shadow of real life. What we’re picturing up there in the sky, with maybe some clouds and harps—you know, I’m not even convinced that we would want to go there. We’re kind of uneasy about sending loved ones off to that strange, quiet tranquility, which is so disconnected from our lives, but Christ says that the real fruit comes after death. He suggests that death is actually the threshold through which greater life is entered into, so that when we go into the kingdom of God the life we have there is not a shadow of this life. It’s the opposite.

If we can find a way to understand that the kingdom of God is right here at hand, if we can find a way to live in the kingdom now, we can orient ourselves so that we understand that the real life, the truer life, the greater life, does come after we pass away, and only then can we begin to pass on an Orthodox understanding of death for our children.

It makes me think of the term “ethnocentrism.” It was a big phrase when I was in college. We were “ethnocentric” when we viewed everything through the lens of our own ethnicity, judging other cultures by our own values. I feel like we’re “earth-ocentric,” like we judge the afterlife in terms of the earthly life, as if the earthly life were the standard and the afterlife would only be judged in how it compares to us, and it would never compare very well because the standard is earthly life, but really we need to have the opposite sense. We need to center our view in the kingdom and understand that what we’re seeing now is the shadow.

We should tell our kids that we’re created for eternal life with God. He created this space for us, this earth, where we could develop in our free will into the kind of human beings that can live in communion with him and one another, in his eternal kingdom. He didn’t create us ready for that communion, but he began to create us for it, and there was some growing and developing for us to do here in the garden of Eden. That’s how God always creates, right? He creates a seed and provides soil and water, and it turns into a great tree.

Look at the Grand Canyon and all of the natural wonders. They inspire awe and they make us recognize God’s glory in the beauty of his creation, but he didn’t carve the Grand Canyon out right away, did he? No, he created this earth and its great processes and systems, and he allowed earthquakes and erosion and the water cycle and the movement of great glaciers to carve out such magnificent natural wonders. God’s creation doesn’t usually snap immediately into existence exactly, but it unfolds beautifully and breath-takingly, and that’s how human beings are, too.

God created the beginnings of the human being in the garden, and we were to grow into something that could live in eternal communion with him. With our free will, however, we’ve chosen to make the path more difficult, but we were created for permanent, eternal, loving bonds with one another. So we’re capable of a love that literally lasts forever. So when someone dies and that eternal love-bond is ripped apart, it hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. It’s right and good that such a thing would hurt.

Human beings were created for eternal life. We are wounded to lose one another to death, but this earth is just our training-ground. The earthly life is just the place where we unfold. It’s like a greenhouse. The real life, the abundant life that Christ promises, comes later, and if we are to really understand death, we have to recognize that it’s how we transition from the greenhouse to the garden, from this strange and difficult and painful world to the real world in the kingdom, because heaven is more real than anything we’ll see or touch right here on earth.

Now, just one final note: if your kids push and push, and they really can’t wrap their minds around the question of why there has to be death, I have a good answer for them, if they’re old enough to hear it. Just after the days of Noah, when the days were very evil, remember, leading up to the flood, Genesis tells us that God decided to limit man to 120 years. We used to live much longer, nearly a thousand years, but God specifically decided that 120 would be a better limit for us. Why? Because there has to be a limit to evil. If you’re dealing with kids who can handle this, especially adolescents who’ve heard about current events, about Christians beheaded or innocents tortured, kids who understand that evil that mankind is capable of, can appreciate why God gave us a limit. Just imagine: if you lived forever, or even for a thousand years, a very evil person could devise a way to torture you forever, or for a thousand years. Our fragility protects us. At some point, if you torture us long enough, we’ll die. Our bodies will give up the ghost, as they say, laying down and finding rest.

There is a way in which death is a respite, because living here in a world with evil, though there’s also God and love and joy, but living in a world that contains evil can be awful. Instead, our days here are limited, and once we cross that threshold into heaven, where evil has been burned away, that’s a whole different question, and living in that state forever is wonderful. Living in this state forever would be a curse, but living in the kingdom of God—that is a blessing without end. Let us remind ourselves and our children that we can carry that kingdom in our hearts every day.