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3 things to teach your child when talking about death

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April 2, 2020

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first conversation I had with my son about death. He was three when his playful bouncing turned to, “I need to go see Nana. I miss her.” “Nana” is my mom. She was diagnosed with cancer in February 2011, and then passed away in August 2012.  

Losing my mom brings new hardships in each season. Having young children means the hardship of trying to explain cancer and death to them at much younger ages than I’d envisioned. There’s no easy way to talk about death. It’s even hard for us adults to understand.  And yet, through this heartache, I’ve been reminded that the best thing I can give to my children is Jesus. 

So, from my experience, here are three things to include when talking with your children about death.

1. Teach them about our need for a Savior

The reality is that our worst sickness is our sin. So, the healing we most desperately need is the spiritual one only our Savior can provide. When these conversations about death arise, we need to teach our children the gospel. We can teach them of creation, and how God’s intentions were for us to live in perfect fellowship with him and one another, with no death or cancer or virus (for more study, see Genesis 1-2).

Then, we tell them of the fall and how when Adam and Eve sinned, everything changed (Gen. 3:7). Sin entered, along with every effect of the fall, including cancer and death and disease. However, we praise God because he didn’t leave humanity hopeless. He immediately covered Adam and Eve and promised to send the Seed to crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15). This is the hope we get to point our children to in tough conversations about death. Because of our Rescuer, death and its effects don’t have the final say. Christ will restore all things, and things like coronavirus, cancer, and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4, 8).

Practically, we won’t always have the time or the eloquence to walk our children through the big story of Scripture every time they ask about death. My children’s questions often catch me off-guard, and I fumble through my words. As much as we’re able, though, we can piece together a line or two of the truth. Our children need a Savior, and their questions provide opportunities to gently remind them of that. We don’t want to scare our children into salvation. However, we need to have truthful conversations with them about the realities of accepting or denying Christ; and questions about death can give us chances to intentionally speak this truth to our children.

2. Teach them that Jesus is enough

There are many beautiful truths of Scripture we can teach our children through grief, but if we teach them only one, let us teach them that Jesus is enough. That day, my son insisted he needed to see Nana. Though I selfishly wished he could, I pointed him to Jesus. I told him how his nana would’ve loved him like crazy, but her love for him would pale in comparison to Jesus’ love for him. Our love is fallen and imperfect, but Jesus’ love is perfect and unconditional. 

I also used those next few moments to intentionally talk with my son about how Jesus is enough for us. Jesus is who supplies our every need, including our need for salvation (Phil. 4:19). Because our God is so good, he even supplies us with himself in the midst of our grief. In grief, we can teach our children the beautiful promises of God. We tell them how God is our Shepherd who comforts us in the valley (Psa. 23:4) and how he promises to be near to the brokenhearted (Psa. 34:18). We can even teach them it’s okay to be sad, showing them how Jesus wept at his friend’s tomb (John. 11:35). 

We miss the point of heaven when we spend most of our time focused on seeing loved ones and walking streets of gold. Instead of a “Hollywood” version of heaven, let’s give our children the biblical view of it. Heaven will be wonderful because Jesus is there.

3. Jesus is the best thing about heaven

Another truth we can teach our children in these conversations is that Jesus is the very best thing about heaven. Like we all do, children want to know if they’ll see their loved ones again. We can find comfort that we will see those who died trusting in Jesus. However, the best thing about heaven is that we’ll forever dwell with our Savior (Rev. 21:3). We miss the point of heaven when we spend most of our time focused on seeing loved ones and walking streets of gold. Instead of a “Hollywood” version of heaven, let’s give our children the biblical view of it. 

Heaven will be wonderful because Jesus is there. We must teach our children Jesus is far greater than all things. Our children will ask many questions for which we don’t have answers. Let’s be clear on what the Bible is clear on, but where it’s not, let’s be authentic with our children and point them back to this: One thing the Bible is very clear on is that we’ll be with God forever. Keep pointing to that. That’s where our answers and hope lie.

Our children’s questions can be intimidating. As we stumble through finding our words, we can trust that God is strong in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9), and he uses our feeble efforts to sow great seeds for his kingdom. These conversations are hard, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. However, Jesus promises to be with us, including in these discussions. Rely fully on the Lord. He’s our sure and steady anchor, living hope, and cornerstone. He’ll be that for us as we face difficult conversations, and he’ll be that for our children, too, as they wade through life’s challenging waters.

Cassie Pattillo

Cassie Pattillo is a student pastor’s wife, mom to two energetic boys, and hopeful adoptive mom to their daughter, growing in their hearts from India. She’s passionate about biblical literacy, and writing and teaching about Scripture. She’s also a big fan of slow mornings with a cup of coffee, a … Read More