You asked me about how to talk to your child about the death of a loved one. I have given this some thought. Here are a few ways to approach the subject of the death of a loved one with your little children:
First, make this a family affair. Gather the children as soon as possible to explain that a loved one has died. Conversations of such magnitude need to take place in a safe environment. If a child hears about the death from someone else it might lead to confusion and even anger.
Second, death is a horrible human reality. One of the consequences of the Adamic sin is death (Rom 5:12). We will all die, and likely we will see and witness many friends and family members die before we do. It is helpful to explain that death is an ugly thing and that as Christians we hate death. Taking our little ones to that familiar story of death in the Garden is a healthy way to contextualize the news to them. Death is first and foremost a theological issue, even if explained in the language of a three or four year old.
Third, do not be afraid to use the word death. If you say that such a person has “passed away” or “gone to sleep forever” this may cause confusion or fear in the child. A child might go to sleep at night fearful that he will never wake up. Clarity is fundamental. Tell the child that death means we will never see grandpa or grandma again in this life.
Fourth, do not be afraid to weep with them. Sometimes children do not understand mom or dad’s feelings after the death of someone. Feel free to explain your feelings to your children. “I am crying because grandma died. I am going to miss her.” If they begin to cry, join them in their tears and comfort them.
Fifth, when children discover that a loved one has died, they may assume that you will die also. They may ask questions like: “Are you going to die too, mommy?” At this point, it is important to let the child know that most people die when they are really old or very sick. And then let them know–if it is the case–that mommy or daddy are not sick and are still full of youth. If someone close died of a very young age, let them know that it is not very common, and then point out the young people around him that are alive.
Finally–and I am aware that much more could be said–inevitably, little children will ask questions about what will happen to grandpa or grandma, or mom and dad after they die. As Christians, we need to stress that Jesus overcame death at the cross and resurrection. He died and was raised so that we might live forever. This is a wonderful time to remind them of the promises of Jesus. “Grandma is now in heaven with Jesus. She is at peace. One day when we die we will join her in heaven. Jesus says that when we go to heaven we will never die again; we will live forever.”
Our children do not need a fairy-tale narrative about death. They need a compassionate, biblical approach that is sensitive to their thinking as little ones and faithful to the narrative of the Bible.
There is a lot to navigate here, but I think this question is an important one.