On Easter morning, my five-year-old granddaughter brought me a toy that was not working. She asked me to change the batteries, but we needed a special screwdriver and not one of her uncles knew where this magical tool might be.
I smiled at her and told her I just happened to have the very thing we needed. Then I opened the closet door and pulled out a small pack of miniature screw drivers. Her eyes widened in surprise that I was able to deliver the goods.
“I’m amazing, aren’t I?” I laughed, and in all seriousness she looked up at me, shaking her head yes, and said, “I wish you would never die. I wish you were like Jesus so you could be my abuela forever.”
I could have used the moment for catechetical instruction, but I believed my hug around her little shoulders and my promise to be her abuela forever, even after I was gone, was lesson enough at the time.
This was the third time in as many days that she had mentioned she didn’t want me to die. It brought back memories of my fourth son who, at a similar age, laid down on the couch for no apparent reason and began to cry.
I asked him several times what was wrong before he eventually blurted out, “I don’t want you to die!”
What prompted his thoughts about my death remains a mystery, but psychologists report that children begin to come to grips with the concept of death between the ages of four to eight.
Of course, every child learns in their own time, but at some point they begin to understand the permanence and inevitability of death; that, contrary to what they see in cartoons or movies, those who have died do not come back to life. They will begin to grasp that people die from physical causes and that, upon death, the human body no longer functions.
Psychologists also stress that children must be given the opportunity, through simple and direct explanation of the natural cycle of life, to fully understand these concepts, and it is the children who often inspire these conversations through their own questions and comments. Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, believed that death should be talked about with children. He faced the subject on his show, talking about the death of a fallen bird, his gold fish, and his beloved dog.
Rogers wrote, “Just being close to our children and being willing to listen to their concerns about death – or anything else – allows them to know that they can mention difficult things to us and we’ll respect their ‘wonderings’ and be as honest and helpful as we know how.”
Being close to our children also allows us to share how our faith in God and our love of Jesus enables us to be sad in the face of death and hopeful at the same time. By sharing our feelings, we encourage children to share their own; by sharing the power of faith in our lives, and our own limited understanding of ourselves as both mortal body and immortal souls, we open the doors to children’s questions and encourage their own learning process.
On the website of the Orthodox Church of America, Dr. Albert Rossi and Father John Schimchick wrote, “In moments of death impacting a child, the adult will feel inept and without the ‘right words.’ These are special, grace filled moments precisely because the adult is keenly aware of human inadequacy. Enter God. This is a ‘moment of opportunity’ for the adult to turn to God, beg for help, and rely upon his infinitely wise guidance.”
To read more, go to oca.org and search under family life for “Talking to Children About Death.” Also visit fredrogers.org, an article about helping children, entitled “Dealing with Death.”
Mary Morrell is the former managing editor of The Monitor and an award-winning writer, editor and educator working at Wellspring Communications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and read at her blog, “God Talk and Tea.”
Annie Sprat photo on Unsplash