There have not been many scenes in my life more poignant than watching my four children and their four cousins, all between the ages of 7 and 18, say goodbye to their grandfather (my father-in-law) in the back of the church, moments before closing the casket.
As other relatives and friends settled in the pews, the eight children, their parents and their grandmother huddled around their patriarch for the last time, each remembering something uniquely precious that they shared with him, and in a silent show of unity, comforting each other in the midst of the heavy grief. My nephew, Sean, then a seventh grader, laid a toy truck beside him, and my niece, Maddie, the eldest of the crew, leaned in and placed her senior portrait in his hands, before kissing his head. When all had said goodbye, weeping, the children were escorted up the aisle to take part in the service.
“Poppy” had been a hands-on grandfather, present at every soccer game, band competition, dance recital and school concert. Retired and living around the corner, he was “on call” on sick days and many times after school. He enjoyed every moment he spent with the kids, and he spent the time well, telling them stories about his life, teaching them about his favorite presidents, and singing Back in Baby’s Arms on the way to and from Wawa, where he intentionally brought each child on special trips, to let them know that they were special to him individually, and for different reasons. As a result, the children felt his death deeply and instantly, and his loss left a gaping hole in their young hearts.
As parents, we instinctively attempt to protect our children from pain. We make them wear bike helmets and gloves when learning to ride a bike because they will inevitably fall and get scraped or bumped. We don’t want them to hurt or bleed, so we stand beside them to steady the bike until it appears as though they have enough balance to maneuver it on their own.
When it comes to death we are even more powerless to prevent the pain. We can’t stop the loss of loved ones, and there is no way to make it what we would consider by today’s standards to be a “kid-friendly” experience. In a culture that has revised the details of enduring fairy tales so that the first two little pigs are not devoured and the big, bad wolf doesn’t end up in a cauldron of boiling stew, that can be a hard fact for parents to accept.
There are countless resources on the web from professional counselors who help people with teaching their children about death, and with coping with grief. Some offer suggestions such as making sure that it is discussed openly and honestly, and that the children understand that they are not responsible for the death of their loved ones. There are grief centers and experts trained to help children with the concept that, as my second grader reported to me after science class, “Every life cycle ends in death,” and the fears that that might instill about their own mortality and that of others they love.
As Christians, we have the blessing of sharing the greatest news of all in the darkest hours of life. With our faith, trusting and believing in the love of God, and knowing the power of the risen Christ, when our children experience the pain of grief, we can offer them hope. Whether today, tomorrow or the next day, every child in this world will suffer the pain of loss, but as a church family, we can huddle together in a show of unity, comforting them in the midst of grief - with the promise of eternal life.
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”