I once asked a high school kid if they’d ever thought about winning the Lotto. Of course they had. I then asked him if he’d thought about what will happen to him after he dies. Nope. I then told him the chance of winning the lotto is 1 in 13,983,186, but the chance of dying in 1 in 1. But of course he hadn’t thought about death. Our society does everything it can to avoid it. It is scared of death and so we don’t think about it. We try to avoid death by being healthy enough. We even escape from animal death wherever we can. But death is one of those crucial things that our kids need to know about and feel for their good.
How is engaging with death helpful for kids?
There are a number of theological concepts in the Bible for which death is absolutely crucial. And it all begins in Genesis 3 with the promise of judgement on sin.
…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die. Genesis 2:17
But, as we learn from Revelation, the concept of death as judgement isn’t completed when we physically die. That is just the beginning. We also experience the second death (Revelation 21:8), which is a spiritual one. This is the eternal punishment for sin. John wants us to grasp the horror of it, so he picks the worst thing in our experience – death – and uses it as the model to help us understand the terribleness of hell. If our kids don’t understand how bad death is, they won’t be motivated to save themselves or others from hell by trusting in Jesus.
And speaking of Jesus – he died. He experienced death on our behalf. The cross has got to be the centre of our theology. The only problem is that our kids don’t understand what death is! My son tells me to wake up after he has play-killed me. Sorry buddy – that’s not how it works. But until he understands the permanence of death, Jesus’ resurrection will just be him waking up after a death sleep. But that is a terribly insufficient understanding of death and resurrection. But it’s not just Jesus’ death that we won’t understand if we don’t get death. It’s the whole Christian life! The Bible tells us that we must follow Jesus in his death. How can our kids have any sense of what that means, if they don’t know what it means to die?
Then Jesus said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. Luke 9:23-24
But wait there’s more! (Is this an add from the 90’s?). Something that Christians have to offer the world is a comfort in the face of death, and a news of hope beyond death for anyone who would trust in Jesus. But death sucks. Death is horrible. It does (and should) stir up a strong emotional reaction in us. If our kids don’t understand death, they will really struggle to interact with others who have lost someone, or are facing death themselves. But if they can empathise, they might be able to speak into that situation with incredible power.
Death is such an important topic for everyone to be aware of – not least our kids.
No exposure to death
One of our issues in Australia is our almost complete lack of exposure to death. We send our parents/grandparents off to nursing homes as they are on the decline. We buy our meat packaged up in plastic, so that we don’t have to view the knife taking its life away. We never talk about the knife that takes its life away either. We are not seriously at risk of attack by other nations who will come and kill us. Seriously, our kids encounter death in the Bible so much more than they do in the rest of life. But this doesn’t really help them know how to interact with it emotionally.
And I don’t think there is a too young category here. There might be a too young for interacting with violent death (all kids are probably too young for this). But kids in every society in history before us had to engage with death from the day dot. It is part of the human experience in the world we are living in. I think the fear that they are too young is a comment to our sanitised upbringing more than their capacity to handle it.
So what can we do?
I reckon there are 2 really helpful things you can do to help your kids interact healthily with death:
1) Direct unavoidable conversations in a healthy direction
If someone close to them dies, say a grandparent, you can’t avoid the issue of death. But there are some really helpful things you can do to help your kids process death well. Firstly, leaning into the emotions of the situation is an important place to start. Help draw out the sadness, confusion, anger and/or fear that your kids are feeling at the loss. Let them feel it. This is appropriate.
And then there are 2 things you want them to understand. Firstly, you want to help them know why death is even a thing in the first place. Death is in our world because sin is in our world. Since Adam and Eve sinned, everyone has died, because everyone is sinful. That’s why we will die one day too, because of sin.
And secondly, you want them to think about the one person who wasn’t sinful, but still died anyway – Jesus. Talk about how he died for us to take our punishment. And about how he rose again, so that we can have eternal life after we die. This may or may not be the case for the person who has recently died, so take care in how to apply it. But you don’t have to avoid the reality.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:26
2) Actively seek out death
What I mean by this, is chase down moments where your kids can encounter death. Not their death of course, but death around them. For example, you might see a dead bird and talk through the difference between sleep and death. You might get a pet that won’t last (think guinea pig) so that your kids will need to deal with death at some point. You might go to a funeral of someone at church, whether or not the family knows them. You might talk about death with your kids, and what it would be like if someone close to them died. You might talk about death in the Bible and what that means for those people. You might watch the news for stories involving death.
One way I’ve done this, is by regularly bringing up a pet that died. We recognise together how sad it is that we don’t get to see that dog anymore. Why not? Because he died. We won’t get to see him again, and that’s a sad thing. Death is the worst.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2
Death is not the end
Many people will disagree with this post I imagine. They will suggest that our kids aren’t ready for this burden, and I’m being a a bit brutal. But let’s remember, whether we are having these discussions or not, death is already here. And sheltering our kids from its reality will only stunt their growth socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
But far more important than their emotional development, is the hope that Christians have in the face of death. You see, as we chat to our kids about death, we don’t stop there. We talk to them about the resurrection of our champion – the Lord Jesus Christ – who defeated death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Tim 1:10). We tell them of the promise of life that we have been given by the very same power that raised him from the dead (2 Tim 1:1, Phil 3:21). We teach our kids that the greatest power the enemy holds over us – the fear of death – has been completely destroyed by our king and we can now have freedom to live without fear (Heb 2:14-15).
You see, we teach our kids about death so that we can show them the hope that they can have beyond it. This will help them feel what is appropriate to feel when it comes to death, without being paralysed with fear. It will give them personal hope beyond the grave, and enable them to take that message of hope to others for the rest of our lives.
Let’s talk about death.