Welcome back to the Cynthia L Simmons podcast! In today’s episode, we have a very timely and important conversation with guest Janet Johnson about a topic that can often be challenging to discuss: death. Janet wrote the children’s book Fly High: Understanding Grief with God’s Help.  As we all know, death is an inevitable part of life, but how do we talk about it with our children without scaring them?

Listen here:

Cynthia:

Death is an inevitable part of life. So how should we talk about it with our children? I grew up in a church that talked about death all the time. And from the time I was four, when I first started going to the service with my parents, I heard horrific deathbed stories from the pulpit. So, most of my childhood I was terrified of death and wouldn’t even go into the funeral home.

I did make a profession of faith early, so I don’t want to attack anyone who does that necessarily because I know that we want our kids to come to Christ. But I don’t think that somehow that was appropriate for a young child, especially a sensitive child. So, is there a way that we can talk about death with our children that addresses what it is without scaring them to death? And today I have with me Janet Johnson and she has co-authored a book for children on death.

Janet:

Well, I’m so glad to be a part of this and to just share some wonderful ideas about how to share with children.

Cynthia:

You need to consider the age of the child. So, what would you do if you had a young child? How would you explain death?

 

Janet:

Well, I think it’s very important to understand that a lot of younger children just don’t have the vocabulary to express how they’re feeling. It comes out in different ways. And that’s where the age levels kind of come in with the understanding. Because like with younger children, how they see things and visualize the world is very concrete. So, if you try to use words like went to sleep or things like that, they understand exactly what has happened. But I think it’s important to know that children can see death as a natural part of life. One of the best ways I think to do that is through nature. In the fall, leaves turn different colors, they become beautiful. Then they become brown and dry and fall off the trees and go into the ground.

 

That’s a wonderful example of something that was living and something that died in its time. It’s a part of nature, it’s a part of life. Using that, or if they’ve had a pet that has died talking about their pet. I think it’s important not to scare the child, but to be very precise on how you talk to the child. And I think that a lot of that does depend on the age of the child. For instance, when they’re under two years old, they don’t have any concept of death. They just know that something is different, especially if it’s a parent, a grandparent, or a sibling. They can sense the tension, and the emotions. They pick up on that and may start crying more easily or become withdrawn and feel very insecure.

Of course, there you just hug, you love, you reassure them that someone is always going to be there for them, knowing that they don’t have a clue what’s going on. And then when they’re in the ages of two to five still in that toddler stage, what you do is you try to very gently come to them and say, grandma died today, I have some bad news or some sad news. Grandma died today. Sometimes the child will show some interest in death, depending if they’re closer to five rather than two. Let the child, if possible, say goodbye. Sometimes we don’t want that to happen. I can remember my parents taking me to my grandmother’s funeral and they just gently walked me by the casket, and I saw her there. Of course, I had lots of questions.

I can’t remember how old I was. Probably five or six.

And we did sit down and talk a little bit later about that.  Just like as we as adults need those closures and so do the children, the children in that age group are going to continue to say, where is so and so? Because they expect them to come back. They don’t have that permanence, that idea that this is forever. They may go around looking for them, especially if they’re two or three, like they’re around the corner or something like that. And again, we just reassure them that Grandma, Grandpa, or whoever it is, is not going to come back. We have to be real with them and not use words that could confuse them. And then they could have disrupted sleep.

Lots of times kids will start having nightmares and they may have changes in appetites, they may have less interest in play. There are all kinds of things, but they can become especially anxious about separation. So, it’s important there again, it’s all about the reassurance that somebody is there for them, that somebody will always be there to love them and hold them and help them in whatever they’re doing. So it’s important, I think, your question, how do you teach children about death without scaring them? It’s gentle but truthful according to their understanding, at whatever age level they may be.

Cynthia:

I appreciate saying that, not telling them the person went to sleep because that was another thing that was used when I was a kid. And that made me wonder if I was going to do that when I fell asleep. So that was frightening. When you say that they need to say goodbye, what do you mean by that? Do you mean that they need to see the body?

Janet:

Well, I think that all depends on the traditions of the family. Sometimes, people are just having celebrations of life, and there may be a picture of the person. In that case, I think it’s perfectly okay for a child to go because they’re remembering the good things about the person.

And I think we must be sensitive to the child. Like you said, you were a sensitive child. And so that is a decision that the parents are going to have to make based on the age of the child and whether the child they think the child is going to be able to handle it.

I think it’s okay to say, tell them ahead of time, that your grandma’s going to be in a casket. They’re not going to know what a casket is. It’s like a big box, okay. Or however they want to describe it. And that she’s not going to be able to smile at them. She’s not going to be able to do anything and ask them if they want to go. Because children need to have the ability to not be forced to do something that they don’t want to do. If they don’t want to do it.

 

I think it’s perfectly appropriate for them to draw a picture if they’re young or write a little note or whatever. And the parent can tell them, I’m going to put this with Grandma. That way they can say goodbye, or they can just tell their wonderful memories. But that way they will always know that some part of them went with Grandma or whomever.

Cynthia:

 I had a friend whose husband died suddenly after he was on a military mission, and she never saw the body. I don’t know why, but she said that she had dreams that he came back or that he wasn’t dead because she never saw the body. And so, she believes that children need to see the body because of that. But again, you have sensitive children and that’s difficult for them.

Janet:

That same thing happened to me with my brother. My brother was murdered, and we lived quite a ways away. I had small children at the time, and I could not get back to identify the body. And so, for a long time, I thought just like this other person, I thought maybe he went into Secret Service or something. And I kept looking for his truck. He had a very distinctive truck. And so, I think that closure is necessary, however we choose to do it. And again, that has to be a family decision.

Cynthia:

How much do you say about heaven and that sort of thing? Because you might have a relative that’s not a believer and you believe the person may have gone to hell. So how much do you talk about?

Janet:

Again, I think that that’s up to the family. Hopefully, they know our faith.

Cynthia:

That what we would hope for.

Janet:

Yes. And I think it’s fair, especially for a child to say, we believe God loves us so much, and God helped to create your grandmother, and God wants to welcome your grandmother to be with him. And we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but we hope you always give that hope to the child. Okay. Later, as they become older, they may know that their grandmother wasn’t a believer or whatever, but we never know what happens at that very last second at death. And so, while we believe, I mean, look at the thief on the cross. It was a last-minute decision. And so, I think we have to give God that opportunity to say that to that person.

But we give hope, especially to a child. You never want to say to a child, your grandmother, your mom or your dad because they were a bad person, they’re not going to go to heaven.

Cynthia:

Yeah, that would be yeah. Difficult. I remember I visited Spurgeon’s Church in England years ago when I was researching Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The pastor was preaching, and he said death is a really big thing. I’m glad someone said that. Because it is a big deal for someone to die and for you to lose a relative, a family member, or a friend. But as believers, we have hope in Christ, and hopefully, we can give that to our children. If that person is trusting in Christ, then they’re with him and they’re in a much better place.

Janet:

Yes. And that’s an opportunity to also witness that we believe in Jesus Christ as our savior, and I hope you will, too. Open that door for the child to be able to ask those questions about Jesus. I think one of the ways that I’ve kind of described death for the believer, we graduate from kindergarten. We graduate from elementary school and junior high and senior high and college if we go to college. Well, death is graduation. It’s our final diploma. That’s another way to describe death for a believer. Well for anybody, because death is The final graduation. Let them know that it’s part of life. I’s just one of those seasons that we go through. Death is not to be feared, but it is to be honored. It is a big thing.

Cynthia:

Last week I just got through doing an interview with Steve Miller who wrote on near-death experiences and people that have come back from cardiac arrest. And many of those stories are incredibly beautiful. They saw light and they believed, they knew they were loved, and they felt comfort. I just have this strong feeling based on that, that the other side is much more beautiful than this. And that’s a whole different topic, but it’s an appropriate topic, I think, to say we do have hope. You think about the story of Stephen. When he died, he saw right into heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And what he saw was so beautiful that he was willing to forgive those who were stoning him.

So, I do think that is a valid thing for us to look at.

Janet:

Yes. And I think if we have special experiences ourselves with death, to be able to describe to a child, probably third grade or above or whatever, but when my mom died, she could not do anything for herself. She was bedridden.

I walked into the room and suddenly, she put her arms out toward me. And I didn’t get it at the moment that this woman who could not do anything put her arms out.  I walked over, and I took her hand, and she laid down. I helped her to get situated again. And then just a few minutes later, she sat up in bed, and she put her arms out in front of her and looked into the heavens. And that happened three times within a very short period. And I realized she was seeing something in the heavens. She was being welcomed because she just laid down and died. There was such a peaceful look on her face. I mean, there is no doubt in my mind that we have eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Cynthia:

And the same is true of my grandfather. He was a sweet believer who used to say, “Lord help us to live the way we wished we did when we stand before you.”

And when he passed away, a huge smile crossed his face. And so, I think he did see into heaven. Yes.

 

Janet:

And I think it’s great to tell kids about those experiences. It lets them know there is more, and that it’s nothing to be feared.

Cynthia:

No, it isn’t. It’s a big deal because you’re graduating.

 

 

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