I had a conversation recently with a mother in my congregation and her twin 6-year-old sons regarding the death of one of their classmates.
A first-grade boy in a school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, died during his sleep in the night.
He had gone to bed with nothing more than a sore throat, something as common for a little boy as getting up from the table before he’s finished his supper.
The boy’s death was understandably a terribly upsetting event for his classmates and the entire school.
So, the question emerges for me and the church itself: “How do we talk to children when death enters their world?”
I would offer some guidance for those who have to deal with this terrible situation.
1. Let children express their emotions.
Children are sad when a friend dies unexpectedly. They need a place where they can express their sadness, anger, fear and other emotions they may have.
One of the things I tell children and their families when death enters their world is that Jesus wept when his good friend, Lazarus, died (Luke 10:35). Parents and teachers should encourage children to express their emotions through words, art and activities.
This does not take away the pain, but it gives children something therapeutic to do with their pain.
2. Encourage children to share their memories.
I can’t explain the phenomena of letting people tell stories of their friends and family members who have died, but I’ve seen it again and again. The balm of healing takes effect as the stories unfold. Smiles creep in when tales of funny experiences come to the service.
In the case of the children I talked with this week, they began to smile and laugh when they told me some of the jokes their friend used to tell them.
Families generally like reminiscing about the crazy antics their loved one engaged in when he was in the prime of his life.
Sharing memories is a way to keep alive the relationship that was meaningful and always will be.
3. Give children hope.
We know that Jesus “loved the little children.” He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Because Jesus loves children, we can be sure that he will love them through all eternity.
Children who die do not merely perish. They are welcomed and taken into the arms of Jesus, who will care for them beyond ways we can imagine or understand.
Again, this doesn’t take away our grief, but it does offer children some hope when they are overwhelmed with the loss of a friend.
Dealing with the death of a child is never easy. It seems unnatural. It’s a sign the world is not as it should be. But while we are in this world, unnatural and horrific things are going to happen
God’s people grieve like anyone else, but we do not grieve without hope. As we walk with those who grieve, let’s keep some hope in our pocket for the journey to come.
Don Gordon is senior pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He is a board member of the Baptist Center for Ethics. A version of this article first appeared in the Nov. 13, 2017, edition of the Ardmore Announcer. It is used with permission.
Founder and CEO of Christians Caring for Creation, he is a member of the Good Faith Media strategic advisory board.