A Matter of Life and Death
Even though I walk through the
[sunless] valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod [to protect] and Your staff [to guide],
they comfort and console me.
We had a tough week in my city of Hobart a while back. We lost an award-winning helicopter pilot, who died in a tragic helicopter crash. The pilot owned a well-known helicopter company, and everyone drives past their distinctive blue helicopters every airport visit. You can read about the disaster here.
The things is, in our Western culture, it’s hard to talk about life and death. It’s not something we easily do. Especially, we find it difficult to talk about it with our children. I mean, why is that a good idea? Do people not understand that avoiding the topic just makes things harder to manage when it eventually happens?
While the co-pilot survived the crash, there was much public heartache for the pilot’s wife and three girls. His daughters are now starting their new life: a life minus their Dad. It’s assumed, but never spoken, that the mother of the family, already a heli-heroine in her own right, will hold the family together. She’s the one who will help those girls transition through this awful time to the “new normal”. She will be their rock and anchor. She will be the one to talk about life and death to those girls. Mothers do that sort of thing. Or Fathers if the mother goes missing.
Expected or Unexpected? Still Awful
Having lost my mother as a teenager, I know a little of the journey this family is traveling. Of course, their path is very different to mine. The sheer unexpected nature of the shock and grief they experienced brings a whole “other dimension” to their days.
In my family, at least we knew it was coming, because cancer rarely takes people by surprise. But both scenarios are awful.
Whether expected or unexpected, death is final, unsettling and dreadful. There is no easy way to deal with it, and yet, just as we know the sun will set today, we know that one day we will live our final moments on this earth.
It’s a sad reality, that death is part of life.
So, Why Talk About Life and Death?
For the most part we sanitise death, and kept it out of sight in our “progressive” Western world. We see no funeral pyres, smokily burning on the evening horizon – as you do in India. We are not knocked awry by outward displays of anguish, as in Syria; or catch the mournful voices of women wailing in Israel. And rarely do people hold public viewings in their homes anymore. Death isn’t talked about, children are often kept away, and adults avoid the topic like the plague (please excuse the pun).
Which means that when death knocks on the door of your household, it is very likely that no one will be very well prepared to talk about it. Because no one one really wants to prepare for what might happen. But we have to change that thinking. Because it isn’t a might. Nor is it a definite possibility. Instead, please know that it will come.
Death will come knocking at your door. And then who will know how to talk about the grief, listen to the questions, grapple with the self-doubt, ask the questions, understand the horror, or investigate the questions?
Life and Death Questions like:
- Where is my loved one now?
- What happened to their spirit, their soul, their “essence”?
- How will I ever sleep again?
- When will the tears and this “weight” of loss end?
- Will I ever stop feeling numb?
- Why do I never cry?
- When will I get over this?
- This is SO not fair! Why me?
We are completely unprepared for the separation, which can feel unbearable. The “new normal” is devastating.
When I became a Mother, there were even more Questions
Having walked the grief journey as a teenager, I thought very carefully about how I to prepare my own children for death. Like many women who lost a parent early, I wanted to prepare my kids as best I could just in case, like my mother, I too died young. Thankfully, I triumphed over her age-of-death a little while ago! Woot!
So, while our young family lived a joyous, rambunctious, fun-filled life, we also had sober moments of quiet and reflection. Contrary to my own experience growing up, talk about death was part of our everyday life.
I wanted to prepare my offspring, not just for survival in an adult world, but for whatever might lie ahead, even before they left home. And for that reason, I was not afraid to expose them to death, so that if – no sorry, not if. So that when we faced death, we had the language, the ability and the openness to talk about it. I tried as best as I could to give my children the language to express some of those deep-seated feelings.
So, let me fill you in on what I did. Maybe, you can bring some of these ideas to your own family situation. And maybe you have some ideas of your own that you could share in the Comments below.
How to Prepare Children for Life AND Death
Celebrate with Others
Just as we visited new-born babes and celebrated life’s beginnings; we also went to funerals, and celebrated loved ones’ last days. Celebration of life and death was (and still is) part of our family pattern.
We’d look at photos of my mother and others long gone, and remember them. The memories are real, even if the person is no longer with us.
I’d tell my children what my mother used to say to me when I was growing up. At times I had a feeling she was just as real to them as their living grandparents.
Make the Most of Opportunities
When we saw them, we’d talk about funeral processions, and what was happening. This talk about life and death, when there was no emotional attachment to the person who died, was quite helpful.
To the amazement of older family members, I took my eldest child to her first funeral at the tender age of five years old. It was a celebration of the life and death of her great-grandfather. I tried as best as I could to tell her what would happen.
We had a small moment of grim humour though – just a little miscommunication. I explained that Daddy, along with other family members, would take grandpa’s body out of the church at the end of the service. When the moment arrived, she sat up in her seat with great expectation. She expected them to take him out of the big wooden box!
Life and Death of Pets
At our kindergarten, the class guinea pig often came home for weekend visits. Along with the birth of her babies, her death caused quite a lot of emotion, discussion and opportunity to consider what happens when something (or someone) dies.
Opposite to what happened in my own childhood, random death events were not hidden. Whenever we caught a mouse in a trap, or found a dead bird in the garden, I encouraged the kids to come with me, and talk about what had happened as we buried it.
We had the opportunity to visit India for a few weeks with a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a nearly two-year-old. During that time, we visited a friend’s mother in hospital, and the lady eventually died.
We decided not to attend the funeral, knowing that a funeral pyre could be a little too much for their young minds, especially seeing as they would not ever have to deal with that sort of scene at home.
But we did visit the family in the days afterwards, where we experienced grieving, wailing women. It was part of our family talk about life and death for a very long time.
The Ever-present Cycle: Life, Death and Resurrection
We often talk about Jesus and his death on the cross – and the reality that there is life beyond death. As regular church-goers it’s easy to get a little flippant about the horror and tragedy of Jesus’ story, which includes betrayal, death and ultimately, sacrificial love. At church, we retell the story every few weeks during Communion, and the words can fall off the tongue very easily:
“The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 NIV
Jesus was an innocent victim, who suffered the horror of an extremely violent death. Glossing over the detail helps us cope with the tragedy. But sometimes it’s good to let this history-making death make its full impact, because the wonderful thing is that Jesus came back to life again.
And this is the tremendous hope of the Gospel. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that there is life beyond death. And he promises it to anyone who believes.
There IS More to Life!
To talk about death in the context of Jesus, and what he did, provided amazing opportunity. Those talks often meshed into ideas of faith, belief and living.
Grappling with these life and death questions always moved on to discussing the spiritual understanding of who we are. We regularly came back to faith concepts: the magnificence of God; His eternal love for us; His great sacrifice that came at such great cost – but solved the problem of death.
THIS is why you talk about death. Because of what Jesus did, it’s sting is forever, and irrevocably, altered! Hooray!
These conversations of life and death , comfort and grief, resurrection and hope, were the most life-changing conversations of all. And they are the best reason I know to talk about death to your children.
I’d love to know your ideas! Your comments are valued.