What I Say to My Kids about Death

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My oldest daughter—nine, serious, and anxious—recently revealed that she has a new fear: she’s afraid of death.

Both of my kids have expressed some concern about it over the years, my seven-year-old with more confusion: What is it like when we die? Can we taste food? Will I have toys there? 

When my seven-year-old seemed upset over the prospect of going to heaven alone, I told her, in a moment of cop-out parenting weakness, not to worry, that I would be there too. Of course, this scared her more, because she realized it meant that I would also die one day.

Loved Ones Are Part of Our Story

We have tried to foster a connection to family members who have passed, especially those our kids have never met or didn’t know well. These loved ones are a part of our story, and they’re important for our kids’ understanding of their own identity. We point out people in pictures, tell silly anecdotes, and reminisce about holidays. This may have backfired on us, as the framed collage of photos in our hallway has become a virtual wall of death, Sixth Sense–style, with its foreboding black and white photographs amid the school pictures and vacation photos.

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Perhaps in our attempt to talk about death honestly, hoping to remove some fear of the unknown, we’ve inadvertently created a preoccupation with the event. It doesn’t help that some of the losses still feel fresh, especially for our parents, who are still mourning some of our grandparents—and the kids are very much aware of their presence.

At the end of the hallway is a photo of my husband’s dear Hungarian grandmother, the sweetest of women, who passed away before my youngest daughter was two. “Who’s that?” I’ll say to my youngest, because I want her to remember and I know she doesn’t on her own. “That’s Anyu, she answers. “That’s Gigi’s mom. And Gigi is sad because she misses her.”

It’s Okay to be Afraid

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that my nine-year-old has had death on her mind in recent days. It’s been a scary year, and people we know are still getting sick, even after 12 months of caution and a vaccine on the way. She doesn’t really want to talk about it except to say that it’s not related to anything specific, it’s just death in general.

It’s a hard one to solve with my parenting bag of tricks. How do you reassure someone about something inevitable and sometimes terrifying? We’ve talked lots about heaven and how wonderful it is, how there’s no fear or sadness there, just God’s perfect loving presence for eternity. They know all about it. But that doesn’t change the fact that some things are just unsettling, no matter how beautifully we describe the unknown.

This morning I appealed to God for help, asking Him to give me the words for her when I had none. And I found myself saying,

“It’s okay to feel that. Some fears we just have to go through. I’m going to be right here with you, with all my love. I’ll be giving you a lot of hugs, so you know you’re safe. And we’ll keep praying about it. We’ll ask God to remind you of what’s true, put peace in your heart, and replace that fear with His love. And He will help you through it.”

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We Are Never Alone

It’s also important to remind our loved ones that we are here with them no matter what. That whatever they go through, they won’t be alone. I think one of the scariest parts about death for my kids is the idea that it happens in solitude.

God Himself never promises us that we won’t have trials. He certainly doesn’t intend for us to evade death. But He does promise never to leave us. He tells us numerous times in the Bible not to be afraid. The more my daughter learns to pray and the more we pray together, the more she’ll understand that death brings us closer to God’s peace and love, not further away. The better she gets to know Him, the more she’ll understand that heaven is the prize, not the terror waiting for us in the dark.

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