On Death and Teaching the Hard Things

It was bound to happen sooner or later. A pet’s death. Though I studied theology for years, worked in the field for several more, and felt confident in my own knowledge of the topic and theology of death, nothing quite prepared me as a parent for the day. My son was four at the time and he was a mess. It was his first pet, a sweet little beta fish.

Watching my son suffer loss was a unique kind of pain. I remember wanting to make everything better to take away his sense of grief. But in my complete inability to fix anything about the situation, my own helplessness over death and life made me feel acutely small. And suddenly all of my knowledge about the subject seemed insignificant. I had to let him feel this pain and start to slowly learn that someday he will have to meet God and let go of what he loves here for a greater Love.

The conversation was short and basic. “It’s okay to cry. It’s ok to be very sad your fishy died. But Jesus is always with us and opened heaven to us. Everything is going to be ok.” Then we buried Fishy and marked it with a Lego cross.

TALKING ABOUT DEATH

Death is the one thing every human on the planet has in common. Whether we like to reflect on it or not, sooner or later we will meet that day. The day that marks the end of our time here on earth. But it also happens to be one of the hardest topics to cover in any real depth or conversation because of the real harshness of it all. Everything we know here, gone. One last breath, and then somehow, someway we will see what comes next. But we must do it alone. Many of us also carry around the grief of watching a loved one die. I don’t blame anyone for keeping it out of the dinner table conversation.

The Saints, however, had the habit of keeping death as a regular thought and reflection. In light of our ultimate destiny as worm food, they were able to live fully in the present moment, completely as pilgrims on their way to heaven. And not just live, but live joyfully, more happy than any of us have ever lived. St. Francis of Assisi went so far as to refer to death as “Sister Death” and welcomed her with open arms knowing it was the passage into Life Eternal, his ultimate desire. Yet even with their supreme example, talking about death with children (young or old) can prove to be difficult.

So how do we talk with our children about death? Should we talk about it? I think the answer is yes – in an age appropriate way. We must always be ready and willing to give answers to some of life’s hardest questions in light of the Gospel. But we have to first make sure we are formed.

Whether it’s about death or another difficult subject, take these tips the next time you have a conversation with your children about the hard things of life:

FIVE TIPS ON TEACHING ABOUT HARD THINGS

1. Teach everything in relation to Christ and the Good News. What is the Good News? That God sent His only Son to redeem a broken and fallen world so that we might again have the chance to live with Him in total happiness forever. (If you don’t have that internalized yet, sit with the Gospels alone each day in prayer.)

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin…But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

Because of Christ, death no longer has the final say. This is Good News! This is GREAT news. Death isn’t the final word. Life is. When we teach and talk about death, it should ALWAYS bring us back to this Good News. Death is big and scary and uncomfortable because we were not made for death. God created man in His image and likeness and in perfect harmony with himself and all of creation. We were made to be happy and whole. And to live forever. Because sin entered the world, so did death. But even at the moment of our turning from God, He was turning back to us (Genesis 3:15). We have a God that would rather give up His only Son to a brutal and unjust death on a cross than to abandon us (even though that is what we deserved! Read Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 422). And what’s more is that He also wants to be in communion with us. Our God is passionately in love with us. 

Are you pumped up yet to talk about death?! Okay, okay … so at least we’re getting there. Start with learning how to make the Good News speak louder than the fear of death when teaching your children. Your steadfast hope will witness to them more than in depth theology. Let our goal be to raise children more certain of heaven than anything else on this earth. 

2. Make it a priority to learn what the Church teaches on the matter. Have you read the paragraphs in the Catechism on heaven, hell, purgatory, and final judgment? (Read paragraphs 1020-1060) We’ve all heard the clich√© “you can’t give what you don’t have”. But it’s actually true with a lot of things in life. I can’t give you a cake I don’t have. And I can’t give my kid the proper faith formation if I’m not formed myself. It also helps to remember that regardless of any outside help from the parish, by virtue of our vocation the task of educating our children in the Faith falls on us, the parents.

Have the mind of the Church, not the mind of an opinionated person. Opinions are fine if you’re talking about pizza toppings, but when we share the Faith with our children, we are inviting them into relationship with the living God. This has eternal consequences, so be sure you know what the Church teaches. This leads me to number three…

3. Be authentic and honest. If you don’t know the answers to questions, tell your children you don’t know. It’s better to admit your limited range of knowledge on a topic than to make up a pat answer that misdirects them. It’s also okay to admit it is a hard topic and you’ll respond at a later time if you need to think about it more. The integrity of the faith is what’s important here. Imagine the outcome of watered down, dishonest answers in any other situation, how would it turn out?

Son: Hey Mom! What do you know about changing the brakes on a car?
Mom: Well, you know son, usually everything works out when we try our best.
Son: So, if I’m generally a person that enjoys cars, and I just go for it and try my best, it will be ok?
Mom: Yeah, you know that’s kinda what I think and you’re a good kid, so sure, why not.
Son: Sweet! Let me just go fiddle with the brakes then. I’ll take you for a drive after I’m done!

Only the consequence of not forming a soul is much more dire than fixing breaks improperly.

4. Ask a lot of questions and learn to listen. One thing I’m constantly learning as a parent is to listen to what my children are actually asking me and not what I think they are asking. Sometimes I get way more complicated than they ever intended. It helps to know where your child is developmentally and what is appropriate to gauge what kind of response you give.

The classic example is teaching about reproduction. My son once asked how his new brother got out of me. Awkward! My first thousand thoughts were about everything I wasn’t ready to teach him yet. So I took a minute to gather my thoughts and remembered at that age, he still thinks in very black and white ways and not too abstract. I asked a few questions such as “how do you think that works?” to see what kind of response he was looking for. Then I simply said God gives mommies a special body part so babies can come out when they are ready. And we went directly into how excited we were to have a new brother here.

With your middle schoolers and high schoolers, remember that one of their top needs is to feel like they belong and are loved for who they are. Your teen or pre-teen needs someone to patiently listen to some of their hardest questions and connect in love and acceptance. This conversation isn’t about changing their minds or convincing them of your ways. Listen, ask, and help them come to conclusions together. Pull out the YouCat and find what the Church teaches with them. Pray together. Be the one they look up to and want to emulate.

5. Pray. This might seem obvious, or maybe not. The hard conversations I have with my children are sometimes so overwhelming that I forget to pray with them. When I do remember, it always seems to bring a closure that I couldn’t do as well with my words. Prayer is the greatest example we can give, especially when talking about something as difficult as death.

You don’t have to say anything fancy, even just the example of prayer can be a positive witness to children. It sends the message that everything we do and say is in relation to God and prayer is that conversation with Him. Never be afraid to pray with your children!

Death can be a difficult topic, but if you always talk about it in light of the Good News and keep some of these tips in mind, you may be well on your way to forming saints in your own home!

Share below, what has been the hardest topic to discuss with your children at home? What helped you teach the Faith effectively?

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What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you!