Don't mention it
Bedtime theology with the 5 yo...
(During bedtime prayers, after reading Bible stories)
Me: Okay, what do you want to pray for tonight?
5 yo: Thank you, Jesus and God for everything.....and my favorite Bible story is the one about the dying.
Me: About the dying? Oh, you mean the Holy Week story?
5 yo: (Looking sheepish) Oh, I mean, sorry Jesus and God.
Me: Oh, do you think you shouldn't like that story about Jesus dying.
5 yo: Well, yeah, because he died.
Me: And you think maybe you shouldn't say it's your favorite or bring it up?
5 yo: Yeah.
Me: I think it's okay. I think Jesus and God are okay with you talking about it. I think it worked out that way on purpose.
If this isn't a snapshot of the way our culture often deals with death, I don't know what is. Don't bring it up. Avoid it. Deny it. Get a little embarrassed. Gloss over it. No matter if you really want to talk about it. You tend to assume no one else does. I was intrigued with my five-year-old's concern that maybe he shouldn't bring up the topic of Jesus' death when talking with.....Jesus. (As if Jesus doesn't want to talk about it!)
I've written elsewhere about talking with children about death. I say do it early and often. Go to the funerals (COVID complicates this) and don't be afraid. My pediatrician reminded me recently that age 5 is a common age where kids begin to understand death and its permanency, so it's an appropriate time for questions and conversations. Another recent favorite round of questions in our house: Who is the oldest person you know, Mom? Who do we know who is going to die first? When will grandma and grandpa die? The questions don't get easier but I try to stay present for them.
Many writers have mused on why our American (by which I mean United States) culture has a tendency to deny, euphemize or gloss over death. Why do we say "pass away" instead of die? Why do we spend a bazillion dollars annually to look younger? Why do we pretend COVID can't kill us? Why do we rush past grief to imagine our loved ones golfing in heaven?
In my first congregation, I took middle school students to a Jewish synagogue for worship. After, the rabbi did a Q & A with us. What do Jewish people believe about life after death? one student asked. The rabbi gave a brief overview of the mystery of the afterlife and Sheol, a place of shadows, as mentioned in the Old Testament. He concluded by saying that's what many Jews believe. But what do you believe, pressed this middle school student. "Well," said the rabbi. "I think when you're dead, you're dead." No one said a word. I don't know if the students were horrified or relieved or something in between.
As a follower of Christ, I do believe in the mystery of God holding us once we die, but that doesn't have to mean glossing over the hurt and sad and real-ness of what happens when someone we love has died. I worry that moving too quickly to happy thoughts of grandma singing in the heavenly choir can rush us past the essential work of lament, grief and absorbing the loss. "Let everything happen to you," says the poet Rilke, "beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."
I want my children to be able to talk about death. I want them to ask me every single question. I want them to feel it all, and then keep going. I want them to trust in God's mysteriously eternal love. I want them to be fully alive while they are here.