It wasn’t the first thing to enter my mind, but it might have been the second: How am I going to tell the kids?
The doctor had just laid out the cold, hard truth: “Your friend, Ken, has passed.” Ken was a dear family friend, a man my kids adored. A longtime staff member at the church I served as pastor, he died suddenly—at the church building, in the midst of his work. A heart attack ushered him into the arms of his Savior in an instant on that overcast fall morning. I was stunned. Our staff was stunned. The congregation was stunned. My children, who “helped him” regularly at the church while I sat in meetings, counseled members, or worked on sermon prep, would be most stunned of all. I planned my talk with them carefully and broke the sad news that evening.
Death Visits Again
Our family faced death again last week with the sudden departure of my stepfather. Like Ken, he clearly loved Jesus and sought to please him. Gratefully, we don’t grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). When the news came, my wife and I were again faced with delivering the sad news to our four children who range in age from 7 to 13.
As a pastor, I always found serving as the messenger of ill tidings particularly difficult. It’s even more tricky, though, when you’re telling young hearts whose ability to grasp death and all its implications is limited. Do we soft-pedal death, referring to it in vague, non-threatening terms? Or do we speak of it straightforwardly as we might with another adult?
My wife and I have found neither approach to be helpful. Obviously, how much and precisely what you say will be much different for a younger child than for a 12-year-old. Still, there are basic biblical realities they should all know.
Here are five fundamental truths we’ve explained to our kids when death has visited closely.
1. Death and judgment are coming to us all.
Sadly, death is part of our fallen world, and the Bible doesn’t shrink back from this truth. Psalm 139 tells us God has numbered our days. Since the Word doesn’t dismiss this truth as “overly negative,” neither should we.
Our family once had friends who never spoke to their kids about negative news items, such as natural disasters or 9/11. They made it a rule never to discuss death. I believe this is unwise. By avoiding bad news, parents set up their children for unreasonable expectations and stark disappointment. This approach subtly, even if unintentionally, communicates that life on earth is ultimate. Worst of all, it fails to provide a rationale for why the gospel is such good news. Every day brings us one step closer to that final day, and our children should be aware of that fact.
There is also a judgment awaiting every one of us (Heb. 9:27). I want my children to know that, as the great Southern Baptist pulpiteer R. G. Lee (1886–1978) put it, there is coming a “payday someday” for the way we have lived on earth (2 Cor. 5:10).
2. Death is not the way it is supposed to be.
This biblical truth is what makes death particularly sad. Tell your kids that death is an intruder in this world, that the first Adam’s sin opened the door through which the curse of death entered. Cornelius Plantinga’s book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1994) is a compelling resource (for adults) to help you put more biblical meat on the bones of this doctrine.
Further, explain to your children that this is why we are sad when someone dies. In our mourning, through our tears, we are admitting there’s really no such thing as death from natural causes.
3. Death for the Christian is to be with Jesus.
In Philippians 1, the apostle Paul toggles back and forth between whether it’s better for him to leave this world to be with Jesus or remain in it to advance the gospel. He then writes: “To live for me is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). In a culture that does all it can to stave off any hint that humans will grow old and die, this is a deeply countercultural truth. But for the believer, crossing the chilly river of death is the pathway to paradise and pleasures that defy the descriptive ability of human language.
4. Death will one day die.
Give your children the unfathomably good news of 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” When the “already” collapses into the “not yet,” death will be history, and this is cause for rejoicing. This is a choice opportunity to commend Christ to your children, to urge them to flee to the cross where death was defeated and mercy is found.
5. Death is something we must all think about.
I don’t want my kids to obsess or become paralyzed in fear over the specter of eternity. That said, 18th-century pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards provides an excellent example of the necessity of ruminating on death, even at a young age. Granted, Edwards was much older than my young children when he wrote his famous resolutions, the seventh of which reads: “Resolved, to think much on the brevity and how short one’s life is (Ps. 90:17).”
Edwards understood that life is a vapor, and that death should motivate us to live for another world. Tell your children that for those in Christ, our best life is later.
What About the Death of Unbelievers?
What do we say to our children about those who seem to have died in unbelief? This is even trickier but presents a key opportunity to discuss eternity, both heaven and hell. We should be no less clear about hell than was our Lord, who spoke far more in the Gospels about judgment than about paradise.
Whether I’m speaking to adults or children, I always avoid weighing in on the eternal destiny of one who appears to have died in unbelief. Of course, I make clear that anyone who would be saved must come to God through faith in Jesus. But we’ve told our children (and I’ve told family members of unbelievers) that the deceased person is in God’s hands—a righteous and just judge who always does the right thing. I don’t put it this way to avoid or minimize the reality of God’s wrath; it simply keeps me from the seat of eternal judge.
Though there’s certainly much more that could be said about death, our kids need to be prepared—in age-appropriate ways—for life in a world captive to sin and death. And they need to be shown why the good news of God’s rescue mission in Christ, and his victorious war with death on Calvary’s tree, is good news indeed.