We’ve received a heart-breaking message from a close friend. She wrote:
"On Thursday last week my sweet, sweet sister Chloe died - she died trusting Jesus and we are confident that she is now safe and home and in his arms.
I have two young children. I wondered if you have any ideas (literally anything would be good) to help us talk to them about what’s happened. Their questions have included:
How did Auntie Chloe actually get to be with Jesus?
How can we get to Heaven to visit Auntie Chloe?
If Auntie Chloe is with Jesus, why are you crying?
Why couldn’t the doctors make her better?
Here is what we said in reply. We hope it helps others.
I am so sorry. I am sorry for you, I am sorry for your children and I am so sorry for all of those who miss Chloe so much.
Firstly, I want to say that you know and love your boys better than I do, so please trust your godly instincts about what to say and how to love them best.
Secondly, please keep telling them the truth, keep listening to how they are making sense of their loss and keep showing them the hope we have in Christ. We really can say with Paul,
“We want you to know about those who have died. We do not want you to be sad as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4: 13, ICB)
This is true. We can speak words of hope and certainty to our children. We have our faith for days such as these. There are a few books that others seem to recommend, but I’m going to tell you what I would say to my children.
With tears in my eyes, I would sit with them, open up my Bible in John 11 and take them to the only one who has the words of eternal life.
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” (John 11: 32-36; NIV)
Jesus knows how sad it is when loved ones die – he cries too, he knows we have questions, he lets us ask those questions.
Everyone there had questions like we do: Why didn’t Jesus stop Chloe from dying? Why doesn’t Jesus do something now? This is why we have, in the Gospels, what Jesus said and did to help us.
Jesus does something that no one else could do. He calls Lazarus‘ name and his words bring life to Lazarus’ body. Dead Lazarus walked out alive! To be with Jesus. Jesus did that on earth so the people standing there, and us as we read it, can know that he is Lord of life and death. The best place for Lazarus was with Jesus. Jesus called his name and Lazarus came to be with him. The best place for Aunty Chloe to be is with Jesus; Jesus has called her name, she is now with him, in heaven.
For very young children I would then go back and read v 11. Jesus is saying, that when we die as Jesus' friends, it’s like we fall asleep on earth, and Jesus wakes us up in heaven. Children need clarity that sleep and death are different. But Jesus has the power to wake his friends from death, in the same way that we can wake our friends from sleep. For very young children this can be enough.
For older children I would read v25-26. Jesus can do what is needed. He raises his friends to be with him where he is, just like he did for Lazarus. Jesus raises Chloe to be with him. That is how we can live, even though we die, do you believe this? These are the words we read out at a funeral, because they are the words we all need to hear about the only person who can help if we believe in Him.
This passage also contains questions about timing, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11: 21) It is helpful for older children to be reassured that Jesus knew what was happening. This helps us answer questions about doctors, illnesses and timing; doctors can’t give life or decide when life on this earth finishes. They tried their best to keep Chloe with us, but Jesus decided it was time to call Chloe home. Jesus decided how and when. And we trust Jesus. We trust him to have chosen the perfect time. We trust him to have taken Chloe from us when it became too difficult for Chloe to carry on. We trust him that he understands what is absolutely best. And when he decides, he does it. And he does it well. Every time.
I would also use this story to say that death is like a door for those who have trusted Jesus, they walk through this door to another room where we cannot go yet. Chloe has died. We cannot see her anymore. But in a place we cannot see, Jesus has given her life again. Forever life. We can’t go and visit, not on a plane or even a rocket. We won’t see her until Jesus takes us through the same door, that is why we all feel sad, that is why all the adults are crying. We miss Chloe. We wish we could still visit her. We wish we could talk to her. But she is not with us. She is in heaven. We know that it is better for her to be there. We are so pleased she is there. That is why we can smile sometimes. But even though we know it’s better for her, we still miss her. And we cry.
So what is heaven like?
In John 14: 2, Jesus says, “There are many rooms in my Father’s house. I would not tell you this if it were not true. I am going there to prepare a place for you.” Jesus prepared a place for Chloe. Her room was made ready. She is there now. I would use this opportunity to talk about happy memories, what things did she like, what would you put in her room? Jesus loved her, he has got a perfect place ready for her, in a wonderful place where she will never be sick or sad, but will enjoy a place where the sun shines, where the grass is soft, where the sea is warm, where the food tastes delicious, and most of all, where Jesus is. Chloe can now see him! How wonderful! Finally, she gets to talk to him, and be close to him and see how wonderful he really is, for herself. But even though we know where she is and that she couldn’t be happier, we still miss her. It is sad for us. That’s why we cry. We really miss her. We want to still be with her, but Jesus has decided, and we know that he knows better than us.
Finally, I would use John 14:3 to answer the question of how to we get to heaven. Just at the right time, our loving Saviour picks up his friends to take us to our perfect home.
These conversations will never be as simple, or as long, as I have laid out. But what children need is to understand the concrete reality of the situation. They need to be told how it really is, and they need to be included in the struggle. We can tell them these things, and often their simple, childlike trust becomes the encouragement and example we need. You know your children, they may find it helpful to talk through this while playing, or telling stories or explain using real objects, or drawing. However you do this, know that Jesus is with you to help you, and pray; pray for yourself, pray for them, pray with them. And be assured of our prayers.
Understanding grief in a child’s world.
- Children are constantly watching, listening and learning. So avoid whispering in front of them.
- Children are sensitive to tensions, stress and emotion. They feel it, so explain the causes to them as best as you can. They struggle if there is persistent silence in the face of their questions.
- Children cannot sustain emotional grief. Do not be surprised if a moment of extreme sadness and confusion is rapidly followed by complete normality.
- Be aware the year afterwards. Children, like adults, will struggle in key moments – Mothers' Day, Christmas, Birthdays.
- Children want to discuss the individual normally, as if they are still a present reality. When their grief overwhelms them, we need to be able to talk about the loved one without being overwhelmed. It is hard but if we, as adults, break down during every conversation, they will stop asking their questions to avoid the reaction.
- Encourage the children to pray, and thank them for their prayers as a valued ministry. Their prayers represent real ministry. God hears every prayer. Prayer is not make-believe or a patronising answer for dismissing our weaker loved ones.