Children and Death
There’s a concept called “disenfranchised grief.” The idea is that there’s certain types of grief relationships that society either downplays as less important or outright ignores. For example, the grief over a pet’s death; the death of an ex-spouse; and — a big one — miscarriages and stillbirths. But perhaps the biggest segment of disenfranchised grievers are children.
Children are disenfranchised for two reasons: their parents haven’t confronted death on a personal level and have become so frightened of it that their natural reaction is to shield their children from the perceived “monster of death.” And two, parents simply repeat the evasive cliches and religious euphemisms they’ve been taught, leaving kids to believe that the deceased is just “sleeping” or “gone to be with the angels.” Cliches act as an unintentional defense mechanism that often keep the children from full death confrontation and thus grief.
I believe that allowing children to be a part of the death conversation and allowing them to be a part of the funeral gives them permission to be a part of the community of grief.
Many of the following suggestions depend on the age, maturity and level of comfort the child has with death. Certainly you never want to force a child to confront death. But if they want a role in the funeral process, here’s ten ideas (many of which were sourced and screen captured from the Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook community):
Involvement doesn’t necessarily mean DOING something. Involvement can simply mean BEING present in the context of community. When it comes to death, perhaps the greatest form of involvement is presence. And perhaps the easiest way to determine if your child should or shouldn’t be present is to simply ask them.
As a funeral director, I’ve seen children of all stages at the deathbed of the deceased, many have been brought while their parents made the funeral arrangements, they’ve been present for private viewings, present for public viewings and present for the funeral. It’s okay (maybe even healthy) to involve your children in as much of the funeral process as you want them to see.
2. Burial Involvement.
Have them great the family and friends that are coming to the funeral. Usually there’s a stand with a registrar book and memorial cards. I’ve seen young children take charge of getting people to sign in and handing out the memorial cards. It’s a very positive and fulfilling role for the children.
5. Sing Some Songs.
6. Hand Out Flowers at the Graveside.
Sometimes flowers will be handed out at the graveside as a “final token of remembrance.” It’s a beautiful thing when children hand out the flowers.
7. Junior Pallbearers.
Full disclosure: This is a book review of The Day the Angels Fell. The author, Shawn Smucker, is my good friend. We’ve shared a number of early morning breakfasts and a couple kayaking trips. Shawn is a better person than I am. He’s kinder and more courageous than I’ll ever be. But that’s not entirely why I’m reviewing (and yes, promoting) Shawn’s book. I read Shawn’s book and I’m promoting it because I’m genuinely interested in its subject matter and I value its death message.
The Day the Angels Fell is a novel that explores an alternative narrative about death … a narrative that we rarely think about in America.
The common narrative that we’ve been told is that death is THE enemy. That death is so horrible we should do everything we can to shield ourselves (and especially our children) from its specter. That our mortality should be hidden away so that the rest of us don’t have to think about it.
The Day the Angels Fell explores the idea that death can be a gift. And not only does it explore that alternative narrative, but it does so with the intended audience being children (middle school on up to adult).
On some levels, The Day the Angels Fell compares with C.S. Lewis’ popular The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That book – more so than the other Narnia tales – provides a way to help children understand and tackle big ideas like betrayal, sacrifice and forgiveness. The Day the Angels Fell tackles the big idea of death through a fantasy narrative that’s intended for children, but – like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – still resonates with adults.
The story revolves around twelve year old Sam and his friend Abra. After Sam loses his mother, he and Abra set out on a quest to bring her back. As he pursues a source of resurrection for his mother, he has to ponder the moral question: “If I find a way to bring her back, should I do it?”
It’s hard to talk to our children about death (hell, it’s hard to talk to adults about death). It’s even harder to do so without using flowery euphemisms and warm fuzzy answers. Perhaps the best way to do it is through a really good story. Shawn’s a storyteller (he’s written well over five books), and in this story, he finds a way to tell an alternative narrative about death for children and adults that isn’t wrapped in overused clichés.
Right now Shawn dropped the Kindle edition price to $3.99 just for our Confessions of a Funeral Director community. It’s well worth the price of the purchase and the time to read it. You can find the paperback version HERE.
This awesome story is written by Tumblr user Annie and was originally posted on her Tumblr page. I messaged Annie and asked if I could share her story here and she agreed.
As some of you know, my brother died last year. It was actually 8 months ago today. Anyways, when my mom and I went to Hollywood Studios yesterday, we decided to stop and take pictures with Woody and Buzz in my younger brother’s honor. We were the only people in line without little kids and got strange looks, but stayed anyway.
When it was our turn for pics, both Buzz and Woody were very fun and playful and posed for pictures. At the end, though, my mom started to tear up, followed by me tearing up. My mom quietly explained to Woody that her son had passed away in October and that he loved Woody growing up, that Toy Story was his favorite movie as a kid, and he had worn his Woody costume almost every day when he was little after he got it for Halloween.
My mom just said a quiet thank you and stepped back so that the next people in line could take a pic, but before she could get away, Woody pulled her into the tightest, sweetest hug. Buzz engulfed me in a hug, having heard what my mom said.
I’m not exaggerating that Woody hugged my mom for a solid minute as she cried on his shoulder and everyone just got quiet and let us have our moment. The cast member that had my phone took pictures and then started to tear up himself. Woody finally let go of my mom just to pull me into a tight hug and Buzz hugged my mom.
While the character actors aren’t allowed to talk, they made a kissing sound to blow us each a kiss while they hugged us and I could hear Woody sniffing through the costume.
We walked away feeling bad for taking up so much time, but the cast members just smiled and told us they were glad we could have that moment. As we walked away, Woody and Buzz waved by and blew more kisses.
My mom turned to me, with tears still streaming down her face, and said that it was the best hug she had been given by anyone since my brother had died.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of Disney.
The following post was originally a guest post on Michelle Van Loon’s blog, “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.”
The author of the post, who wishes to remain anonymous, wrote the following message to me via facebook:
Last June we accepted a foster placement of twin girls who were four months old. We’ve been foster parents for almost 7 years, but nothing prepared us for the sudden death of one of the twins, Ellie, at almost seven months. She went to bed a happy and healthy baby and when I reached into her crib in the morning I pulled out a corpse instead.
I am traumatized. I am an emergency nurse and not unfamiliar with death. I did CPR on Ellie out of reflex but with the full knowledge that she was gone and I couldn’t fix it. I can still taste the breath that I pushed out of her lungs. I’m never going to be the same…and I know it.
I am also a Christian. I think. In fact my husband is a church leader, making me the wife of a spiritual leader.
She then gave me the link to her post at “Pilgrim’s Road Trip.” I asked if I could also post it on my blog and she gave me permission. This post is immensely challenging, and will beg you to vicariously see the grief of a bereaved mother. This isn’t an easy read, but it’s one that will help you understand the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It’s written from the perspective of Holy Saturday … where doubt and silence are the only forms of faith.
Please stop attempting to spiritualize the death of my child. Assigning some thoughtless Christian platitude only serves to deepen my anger and further question my beliefs. If you don’t know what to say, a simple, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say,” would be far better than these actual attempts at comfort that I’ve received:
1. “God has a plan.”
Really? You serve a God with a plan that involves killing babies? Or at least standing by and allowing the baby to die when you believe that he could have intervened? Because the baby killers I’ve seen get life in prison. And even the convicts know which guy to attack.
2. “Some good will come of this. You’ll see.”
You think that at some point I’m going to see some direct blessing in my life or someone else’s that will make me think, “Aha! Here’s the good that came from my child’s death! I am now so glad that she died so that this could happen!” No! An Almighty God could surely think of some other really creative way to bring about good. Or else I don’t want that “blessing.” I will always wonder why it had to be this way, no matter what good things may come later in my life.
3. “Just think of the ministry you can have someday to parents who have lost children.”
No. At least not the ministry you’re thinking. That would require me to say that God is somehow in this for them and I happen to know that’s not helpful. Plus, I don’t want that ministry. I’ve spent twenty years of my life trying to serve God full time. I’ve put every major decision of my life through “God’s will” as a filter, including setting aside life dreams for myself. All of the big things I’ve tried to do for him have been heartbreak for me. I think I’m done with ministry at this point.
4. “God loves you.”
Imagine If I were married to someone who said, “I love you. I mean, you’re going to get hurt and I won’t stop it. In fact, I might even cause it. But I love you! It’s for your own good! It’s because of my great love for you.” You would encourage me to get to a women’s shelter immediately for my own safety. Where’s the safe place from this kind of “love?”
5. “God’s perfect love casts out fear.”
I’ve been dealing with a moderate amount of anxiety since my baby’s death. I’m not a very anxious person by nature, so I’ve sought some help dealing with the feelings of panic. I struggle with coming home after a night shift and wondering what I might find. I compulsively check on my children at night. Going to the doctor with another child of mine is a trip through some very dark places of fear. I’m constantly wondering which of my family members is next on God’s hit list. The advice that God’s love will fix those fears isn’t really resonating with me right now.
6. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Just depend on Him.”
The Christian grief counselor we saw put it this way: “God doesn’t give sorrow to people unless he knows they can handle it.” Really? Well, he was wrong. I can’t handle this. And if he doesn’t give me more than I can handle, why do I need to depend on him? The last time I was depending on him, my child died. So, yeah. That’s not likely to happen again soon.
7. “You’ll see her again someday.”
Is that day today? Then no, this isn’t helpful. It’s minimally hopeful if I can be sure that it’s true, but there’s no Scripture to really support this belief. There’s inference and tradition and conjecture, but there’s no chapter and verse that says, “Infants who die go to heaven.” Besides, If I live an average life expectancy, I will have to live at least another fifty years of missing her. ”Someday” could be a long, long time from now.
8. “Look at all of God’s blessings in this situation already! At least_______”
All of your “at leasts” aren’t blessings to me. Anything you say that starts with “at least” only minimizes my feelings.
9. “Just read [insert Bible verses here] and you’ll feel better.”
Passages that have been suggested to me include verses about God’s judgment, the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life, a passage instructing me that my heart is deceitful and wicked, and other similarly “helpful” Scriptures. This advice also assumes that I know no Scripture to which I can turn. You know which verse has been ever on my mind ever since the day my child died? “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I’ve been reading the Bible for almost thirty years. I know where to find verses. Not too many of them are helpful right now. Bludgeoning me with Romans 8:28 is especially painful.
10. ”Just trust God. He is in control.”
I was trusting God at the time my baby died. She still died. If God is in control, that assumes that he killed my baby. My sweet, smiling, dimpled baby. If he didn’t kill her, he stood by while she died and didn’t stop it. Still guilty. I’d much rather believe that fate or chance had a hand in her death. I’m a lot more likely to have a continued relationship with someone who didn’t cause my baby’s death, either directly or indirectly.<
11. “This happened for God’s glory. Maybe someone might even get saved!”
This has been said to me with much excitement and expectation. You mean to tell me that God couldn’t have orchestrated some other way to get glory or reveal himself to someone? Or that some person out there is going to say, “Oh! God allowed ‘T’s’ baby to die. I should start a relationship with him and trust him with MY life!” Doubt it. And even if that actually did happen, should I then feel that this was all worth it?
12. “This world is not our home. She’s in a better place now.”
Yeah? Well, I live here right now, so it’s my home. If you actually believe this, why haven’t you committed suicide yet? As for me, I’d finally be in a better place if I died, too? And no, I’m not at all suicidal. I’m just saying that no matter where she is, I’m in a really painful place right now.
13. “Just imagine what tragedy or heartbreak God saw in your baby’s future that he decided to save her from.”By killing her? I’m sure there was another possible work-around or two. For that matter, this has been a devastating tragedy and heartbreak for me. Why didn’t I die as an infant so I wouldn’t have to go through this now?
14. “God will carry you through.”
If this is the kind of thing God is going to carry me through, I’d like him to please put me down.
15. ”Be thankful for what you have.”
The assumption here is that I wasn’t thankful before (I was), that I’m not thankful now (I am), and further minimizes the loss I feel. How do you suggest that I answer even the simplest question of how many children I have? I’m thankful for what I have AND for what I no longer have. It’s impossible to answer this question correctly now. Similar, but even more guilt-producing is “You have your husband and children to think about now.” Thank you for the suggestion that my grief and pain are invalid by comparison and should be left unmanaged for the good of my family. See? There. I was thankful.
16. “Things will get better.”
When? How do you know? Because for me, bad things just keep happening. It can get worse and I can name at least fifty ways it could get worse right now. So don’t say that things will get better. It could go either way.
17. “Maybe God is trying to teach you something.”Well, maybe he could have just texted me the instructions instead. Seriously. All I’m learning is that God can do whatever he wants and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A similar platitude, “Maybe God is trying to draw you closer to himself”, is equally insulting. Can’t he see the future? Didn’t he know that using an infant’s death to deepen our relationship might backfire? Please don’t presume to know the mind of God or impart your opinion of it to me.
18. “She’s with the Lord now.”
She wasn’t before? How about the rest of my family? I’m not with the Lord? Well, I’m glad he’s with someone, I guess.
19. “I know how you feel. I felt exactly that way when my grandparent/great Aunt Lucy/Fluffy died or when my child was sick, but then got better. But I just prayed and kept my eyes on God and he got me through. He’ll get you through, too.”
You have no idea how I feel. I wouldn’t wish how I feel on anyone. And what will he get me through TO? Can you guarantee that whatever is on the other side of this trench in life is something less painful? Because whatever it is, it will be a life missing my child and all the things that loss means.
20. “I was so devastated when your child died that I couldn’t go to work that week/I’m still struggling a month later.”
Both of these are actual things said to me by people who had seen my baby fewer than six times in her whole life. Other ways people who barely knew her have tried to be a part of the drama and somehow connect themselves to this tragedy include Facebook statuses or tweets with her name as a hash tag, prayer requests without my permission or in inappropriate places, and most difficult: “How are you doing? Because I’m so sad that ____.” There was an expectation that I should comfort THEM. Exhausting.
21. “You should_____.”
Don’t tell me what to do. I don’t want to exercise more, eat better, read that great book about God, go to a grief support group, focus on God, get involved more at church, get alone with God, go away for a weekend without my kids, take sleeping pills, talk about it more, or think about it less. I can’t afford to take any more time off work. I can’t concentrate enough to do much of anything right now, honestly. And a bigger list of things I “should” be doing right now is simply not helpful.
22. “If you need anything, let me know. I’m here for you.”
No. I’m here. Alone. It’s not possible for you to be here for me or I’d gladly give it to you. I’m glad you want to help, and I don’t doubt your sincerity. But this comment is a substitute for any kind of real help. You’ve absolved yourself of actually helping me in any tangible or intangible way and placed the onus on me to come up with some idea of what I need. You know what I need? I need my child. Alive and giggling. I need the image of her lifeless in her crib out of my mind and the taste of her dead skin out of my mouth. I need her siblings to grow up with her. I need for my husband to have never experienced this depth of pain. If you can’t give me any of these things, you’re kind of on your own with suggestions for helping me. Maybe send a sympathy card. It will make you feel better.
23. “Well, I’ll pray for you.”
Aside from the doubt that exists over whether you’ll actually do it or not, how is this helpful? Who knows better than God what I need and why hasn’t he already given it to me? Your asking for it will make it magically appear? The worst part about this statement is that it usually comes at the end of your listening to me or grieving with me. As in, “You’re done now. I’ll pray for you, okay? You’re making me uncomfortable with your intense sadness and hard questions.”
I know that I haven’t left you anything to say. Maybe that’s the point. I also know that, if you’re a typical Christian, you’re defensive and even deeply wounded by what I’ve said here. You’re thinking, “But remember, here’s what God is REALLY like and here’s where you’re wrong. Here’s where you need to adjust your theology and get your heart right with God.”
Whether you like it or not, no matter how uncomfortable this makes you feel, no matter what you believe or even what I believe, these things you’ve said are not helpful to me. In fact, many of them are so hurtful that I’ve been awake more than one night trying to work through them.
Maybe someday I’ll be ready to accept my child’s death with a little more grace. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stick with, “This sucks,” or a simple, “I’m sorry.” You know what’s even better? The sound you make when you stay quiet.
This week my blog is being taken over by Jessica Charles. This from Jessica: I am Corporal Joshua Alexander Harton’s Big Sister. I am his sister and I protected him his whole life. That is until September 18th, 2010 when a bullet from Taliban’s rifle went through his neck, cutting his carotid artery, moving through his torso and destroying organs and finally leaving his body at the left hip and shattering his Kevlar armor. I am Josh’s sister and I need you to know that my little brother is dead and my epic life will never be the same again.
Sharing memories of a loved one to a child is a special thing. It can also be extremely difficult.
Once my son asked, “Why did Uncle Josh join the army?”. That is a normal question not just for a child to ask but for anyone.
I promised myself that I would tell my son the truth. I made that promise when I was given the news of Josh’s death. I would not hold back, I would be honest and simple but I would not lie. Uncle Josh died, he was shot, I don’t think it hurt, I don’t know the bad guy’s name.
Then a year later, ‘Why did Uncle Josh join the army?”. Well I knew why. Josh joined because he didn’t know what else to do. He enlisted because it was a job and someone had to do it, he knew he could do it well and then he could figure out the rest of his life later.
Is that what you tell a four year old, though? I didn’t think so. I told my son, “wait, I would think about it and I would get back to you.”
Then I whipped out my phone and madly texted my brother’s best friend. ‘He wants to know why Josh joined the army’.
Reply:”Because he was a loser at UPS and he wanted a better job”.
Me:”Duh, do you want me to tell Nic that?”
Reply: “Tell him because he wanted to protect his country”
Me: “I said I wouldn’t lie!!!!!”
Very long pause as we both thought on what to do.
Me: “what about this: Uncle Josh didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up so he joined the army while he figured it out?”
Reply: “True, not the whole truth but it works”
Whew. Well that went over well. When he is older and knows a bit more about how confusing life is, I can elaborate.
Then what about this one: “Does Uncle Josh love me?”.
First, how am I supposed to answer that without a chaos of tears. Of course he loved you, he loved you so fiercely he hated to be near you in case he tainted you. How can I explain that? How can I explain all that to someone so small and precious?
‘Yes, Uncle Josh loved you. And there is something very special about love. Love never dies. When Josh and I were growing up we loved each other so much. We watched out for each other and we protected each other. And when I became a Mommy and he became an Uncle we took the love we started when we were little and we shared it with you. We both love you. The love grew. And now that you are a big brother, that same love, from Mommy to Uncle Josh, is now growing from You to your Sister. Isn’t that wonderful? So no matter what, no matter how much it hurts when someone we love dies, the love they had for us and the love we have for them never dies.”