Death & Dying: Talking with Kids

 

This episode of Raising Saints was released as a podcast in the summer of 2014. Our new Ancient Faith intern, Dan Bein, reminded me of this beloved past episode and I just had to repost it. 

 

We lost a beloved member of our family over the summer: my husband’s 89-year old uncle Dan was one of my favorite people in this world, and a fixture in our home. Dan found something to celebrate in every person he met; if you had been a guest for dinner at my house or if you waited on him in a restaurant or if you had the good luck to serve as his nurse, he’d have looked you in the eyes and been genuinely interested in you, your family heritage, your accomplishments and interests, and then he’d introduce you around to everyone as the next President of the United States or a great watercolor artist, or a six-star gourmet BBQ master. He took pleasure in knowing people and celebrating the good he could find in them, and while Dan was not perfect, but he truly embodied that ‘Be the Bee’ strategy that Elder Paisios encouraged. He emphasized the good in everything — every a closed door was a new beginning, and every person he ever met was his delightful new friend.

Dan was hospitalized in June, and we visited him all the time, until finally in July we sat at his deathbed and said goodbye. We’ve been guiding our children through this process of watching a loved one decline and then fall asleep in the Lord, and it occurs to me that we should have an episode on how we talk with kids about death and dying, because it’s difficult territory, made worse by the fact that we are usually coping with our own grief at the same time that we shepherd our children through theirs.

Our family has an unusual level of familiarity with this topic, because we’ve been through this wringer a few times with our kids. This was not our first rodeo. In 2005, our fourth child — a son, Luka — died very unexpectedly of SIDS. Just as we were faced with the most profound grief we’ve ever experienced, we also had a house full of big sisters who needed us. Their little brother had died, and their parents were so, so sad. We were thrust into a crash course in how to guide children through death and dying.

Back when Luka died, our children’s kuma, or godmother, who is a child psychologist, leapt onto a plane to come to our assistance. She grabbed a stack of books on child grief, and read them on the flight to Texas. Armed with some expert advice, we began the very long journey of grieving as a family.

We have children at various ages, and each of them handles death differently — it varies by personality, but it also varies very much by developmental stage.

So let’s talk about dealing with death and dying and suffering in an Orthodox way.

Let’s begin with a few very practical observations, and then we’ll move on to the more philosophical part.

First and foremost, as the adults in the situation, we often want to avoid discussing scary things: they’re scary for us, and they’re scary for the kids. But it’s important that we not try to protect kids from the truth. When we withhold information, our kids fill in gaps themselves.

So if a child knows that a person is sick or dying, and we avoid explaining exactly what’s wrong with them, or if we give them vague answers when they ask us questions, they are going to fill in with their own information. But where will they get information if you won’t give it? They’ll hear little bits and pieces of conversation, they’ll observe our own mood changes and sadness, and then they’ll use their imagination to create an explanation that makes sense to them.

That’s right – if you don’t give them a satisfactory explanation, they will make one up.

Trouble is, kids engage in ‘magical thinking’ — for instance, if they have a baby brother who was crying too much or sucking up too much attention and they’ve ever thought, ‘man I wish that kid weren’t always stealing my limelight’, then when he dies they may imagine that they killed their brother with those thoughts. Or if you have an elderly relative, and you’re visiting them frequently, the kids may occasionally think to themselves, ‘I wish I didn’t have to come to this weird, medicinal-smelling, unpleasant place.’ That’s a totally natural thought, but when the person dies, the child may think that they wished him to death, because they didn’t want to have to visit anymore.

When kids are left to make sense of things with their imagination, the ideas they come up with are usually worse than the real thing, so when they are asking why someone is sick, why someone has died, we have to be ready to explain whatever it is — his heart is no longer working as it should, or a blood clot formed and caused damage, or his liver is getting hard and useless and is no longer doing its job. Sometimes we’re sad about the situation, and we use the idea of protecting our kids to allow ourselves not to express what’s happening — it’s like an escape for us to gloss over an illness and to protect our kids from the truth, but in the end we might be creating an information vacuum which our kids will fill with something far scarier and more problematic than what’s really happening.

So we need to be honest with our kids, and we need to be ready to explain what’s wrong with sick loved ones, and to acknowledge death — while at the same time, being reassuring.

There’s a balance to be achieved, because perfect honesty would say, “yes any of us can die at any moment” — but kids need security and stability. They need to know that someone will be around to take care of them, to feed them and to tuck them in at night. So it’s also ok to say, ‘I am going to grow old, and you are going to grow old. When we are very very old, we’ll die.” As long as that’s probably true, that’s fine.

It might surprise parents to know that when kids ask about their parents’ demise, they are usually just checking to see if there is a plan, a safety net to catch them should you leave them behind. Be quick to tell them the plan: whatever godparent or family member or good friend has been lined up to parent in your absence should be named. It’s remarkable how quickly their worry fades when they know that you have made arrangements for them.

In our household, we are pretty straight forward about death. We bring our children to open-casket funerals (though I wouldn’t if my child expressed great fear or reluctance) and we speak openly about loved ones who have died. We pray for them by name every evening in our family prayers — never putting them away or to the side, but demonstrating that they are still a part of this community, this communion.

And that leads us to the less practical and more philosophical aspect — we should ask ourselves, what is the traditional Orthodox response?

Well, in a traditional Orthodox society, people should be dying at home. A sick grandparent might be living with the family, and their decline and death would happen right there in the home, with the children all around. It’s not Orthodox to hide death or deny it. Indeed, the truly Christian response to a dying person is the same response we should have to every person we meet: love. To love a dying person is to take care of them in their illness, to offer love and compassion, to spend time at their side and to pray, pray, pray for the alleviation of suffering and for their salvation.

We Orthodox do something; we pray, and we light candles and we feed people and care for them. All humans need things to DO to manifest their faith, and that especially applies to children.

Once we’ve offered children the truth about a dying loved one, we need to give them something to DO. Finding their own role in this process of dying is very important, and helps them to understand death as simply another part of our earthly lives.

What can a child do? Children can do plenty:

They can visit the dying ones, and they can visit the bereaved family.
They can draw pictures and write poems to offer as gifts.
They can offer comfort and love in their very presence.

And they can also do the one thing that is most useful: they can pray.

We treat prayer like a last resort — we say stupid things like, all that’s left to do is pray! — but truly, prayer is probably the most useful thing we do for one another, whether we are healthy, declining, dying or even after we die.

Our church offers beautiful memorial services and prayers for the dead. When we lost our son, we were invited to a non-denominational support group, and I was very struck by the great effort they were making to create some tradition, some ritual that would help them deal with their grief. They did balloon releases and made Christmas ornaments — people were hard at work, trying to create a ritual that would have some meaning and offer some comfort to grieving families. Even though so many Americans outside of Orthodoxy think that they don’t want ritual in their life, I see people always reaching for something they can create, a way to take some kind of action that has symbolic meaning, but what we want is more than just symbolism — these people were trying to think of something that would make a mark on eternity, a way to reach out and offer something from their own heart which would memorialize their child in an irreversible, utterly permanent way. Our children had left the earth so soon and we were struck by how they’d been erased, leaving no mark behind. Parents felt powerless, yearning to memorialize their children, but all they had were these silly little gestures they’d dreamt up.

It was at that time, when we lost our son, that I truly came to see what a treasure Orthodoxy is! We don’t have to invent a ritual — we have actions of profound significance, sacraments and services that bring us into communion with dead people! Our actions are not merely symbolic, but they are sacramental — they stand at a junction point, where the heavens bow down to our world, where the eternal Kingdom of Heaven joins this world of living, breathing bodies.

My son is gone, but my work as his mother is not finished. I can pray for him, I can offer koliva and light candles. When I sing “Memory eternal” I both request and testify that my child lives forever in the eternal loving memory of God. Not my limited memory, nor the all too weak memory of the community, but in God’s holy and eternal memory. The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Being remembered, recognized by the Lord, means that we have eternal life in the Kingdom. We are not lost and forgotten in death, but remembered and kept alive in communion with the holy Trinity and with the holy Church.

When our loved ones die, we pray memory eternal, with the faith that they are living in the Kingdom. We can teach our children to say these prayers and to understand what they mean, so that they too can join in the work of prayer, and have the satisfaction of doing something to help when they’re faced with loss.

In our house, we a pray for ‘those who have died in the hope of the resurrection’ and list our lost loved ones every night. We train the kids to do that work of prayer, so that they instinctively know what to do when someone falls asleep in the Lord. That is no small gift. We are all so helpless in the face of death — and yet, some of us know what prayers to pray when someone dies. We should not underestimate how helpful and beautiful and profoundly useful this is.

Every one of us feels powerless when death looms, as we should — we are meant to stare down our mortality, but this is a scary thing for children. They are so often powerless, and especially at these times. But when we can DO something to help, when we can pray and comfort people, we are empowered and the fear dissipates.

Praying is doing something useful, and so is making koliva and offering a memorial in the parish, with the whole community. We gather everyone else to pray for our loved one, keeping them in the Church community and reminding ourselves of the verse that inspires the koliva: In the Gospel of John, Christ teaches that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) The fruit comes after death. Does the fruit we bear here on earth not even compare to the fruit we can bear after we die? That’s an amazing statement, and it runs counter to the assumptions we make.

We tend to think that what is real and what matters is our life here on earth. We hope that people who live good and fruitful lives will find a reward, a kind of consolation prize in heaven. The real part is the life here on earth, and heaven is the vague, happy thing after.

Heaven is like some kind of after-thought, an unreal place that is happy and somehow, is merely a shadow of real life. We tend to picture something up in the sky, perhaps involving clouds and harps, and in a way, I’m not sure we’re convinced that we’d rather be there than here, so there’s something kind of uneasy about sending our loves ones off to that quiet tranquility, so disconnected from our important and busy lives.

But Christ says that the fruit comes after death — He suggests that death is actually the threshhold through which greater life is entered into. He also tells us that Kingdom of God is at hand. At hand — in reach. Right here.

Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but it’s here. We can live in the Kingdom every day. We can live in the Kingdom today.

If we could find a way to do that, to really convince ourselves that true life is in the Kingdom, that it begins right now and continues into even more fullness after this earthly life comes to an end — only then can we begin to pass on an Orthodox understanding of death to our children.

When I was in college, ‘ethnocentrism’ was a big buzz word. We were ‘ethnocentric’ when we viewed everything through the lens of our ethnicity, judging other cultures by our own values. I feel like we are earth-centric, judging the afterlife in terms of earthly life – or a lack thereof.

We need to step back and break free of this earthly perspective, so that we can see life and death for what they really are.

This is what we should tell our kids:

We are created for eternal life with God.

He created this space for us, this earth, so that we could develop in our free will into the kind of human beings that could live in communion with Him and one another in His eternal Kingdom

He did not create us ready for that communion, but He began to create us for it and there was some growing and developing for us to do here, in the Garden of Eden.

That’s how God always creates, right? He creates a seed and provides soil and water, and it turns into a great tree. Look at the Grand Canyon and all of our natural wonders — they inspire awe and make us recognize God’s glory and the beauty of His creation. But did He carve out the Grand Canyon right away? Nope. He created this earth and its great processes and systems, and He allowed earthquakes and erosion and the water cycle and the movement of great glaciers to carve out such magnificent natural wonders. God’s creation does not usually snap immediately into existence, but instead, it unfolds beautifully and breathtakingly.

That’s how human beings are too.

God created the beginnings of the human being in the Garden, and we were to grow into something that could live in eternal communion with Him.

With our free will, however, we have chosen to make the path more difficult. Adam and Eve introduced fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil before its time, so death crept into this world, and now we have to deal with it.

We were created for permanent eternal loving bonds with one another, and somehow we can become capable of love that literally lasts forever.

So when someone dies and that eternal love bond is ripped apart, it hurts. It is supposed to hurt. It is right and good that such a thing would hurt — that human beings created for eternal life would be wounded to lose one another to death.

But this earth is just our training ground. This earthly life is just the place where we unfold — it’s like a greenhouse. The real life, the abundant life that Christ promises, comes later.

If we are to really understand death, we have to recognize that it’s how we transition from the greenhouse to the garden, from this strange and difficult painful world to the REAL world. Because heaven is more real than anything you’ll see or touch here on Earth.

Somehow, we need to find a way to raise our children in the Kingdom here on Earth, to be able to feel it and see it all around them — because only then can we understand that death is the threshold that we cross to enter into real life.

And on a final note, if they push and push, and if your kids really can’t wrap their minds around the question of why there has to be death, I have a good answer for them, if they’re old enough to hear it.

Just after the days of Noah, Genesis tells us that God decided to limit man to 120 years. We used to live much longer, nearly a thousand years sometimes, but God specifically decided that 120 would be a healthier limit for us.

Why?

Because there has to be a limit to evil.

If you are dealing with kids who can handle this – especially adolescents who have heard about current events, about Christians beheaded or innocents tortured – kids who know about the evil that mankind is capable of, they can appreciate why God gave us a limit. Just imagine: if you lived forever, or even for a thousand years, a very evil person could devise a way to torture you for a thousand years. (Think ISIS and being buried alive. There are a lot of possibilities for what an evil mind could devise given this opportunity.)

Our fragility protects us — at some point, if you torture us long enough, we will die. Our bodies will give up the ghost, as they say, laying down and finding rest.

There is a way in which death is a respite, because living here in a world with evil, though there is also God and love and joy, but living in a world that does contain evil, could be awful.

Instead, our days here are limited, and once we cross that threshold into heaven, where evil has been burned away, that’s a whole different question and living in that state forever is wonderful. Living in this state forever would be a curse, but living in the Kingdom of God – that is a blessing without end.

Let’s remind ourselves and our children, that we can carry that Kingdom in our hearts every day.

Elissa Bjeletich

About Elissa Bjeletich

Elissa Bjeletich hosts three popular Ancient Faith Radio podcasts: Raising Saints, Everyday Orthodox, and together with Kristina Wenger, Tending the Garden of Our Hearts. She is the co-author of Blueprints for the Little Church: Creating an Orthodox Home and author of Welcoming the Christ Child: Family Readings for the Nativity Lent, and In God’s Hands: A Mother’s Journey through Her Infant’s Critical Illness. She serves as the Sunday school director at Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church. Elissa lives near Austin, Texas, with her husband, Marko, and their five daughters. You'll find more information on her website: elissabjeletich.com

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