Note: This is a post I have hesitated to write. It is about an extremely personal and painful moment in my life and in the life of my son. I share it, not to appease your curiosity or to elicit an emotional response or gain attention. In the last several weeks I have interacted with several people who have experienced loss and had to explain death to a young child. While I am not an expert on the subject, I have walked that very difficult road. My hope and prayer in sharing our story is that it would be a help to those who will also have to walk that road.
I had to tell my three-year-old son that his daddy had died. It was one of the most difficult and painful things I have ever had to do. It isn't something you prepare for, study for or gather advice for. Tragedy strikes and it has to be done. Here is how it played out for our family:
Who: I had to decide two things in deciding the "who" of our story. Who would tell William about Barry's death? Who would be in the room when he was told? To be honest, these were easy decisions for me to make. I strongly felt that it was my job to tell William. I am his mother. In losing Barry, I became solely responsible for his life and his raising. This was a defining moment in his life and I would be the one to walk through it with him. I also strongly felt that it was an extremely personal moment that was for us alone. No one else was allowed to be in the house when I told William. (Yes, that means I asked everyone to leave for an hour.) I wanted us to be alone for two reasons. First, William is extremely social and sensitive. I did not want him to be influenced by others' emotions and reactions. Second, I wanted him to have the freedom to say, feel and react in any way he needed to without fearing what everyone else in the room would do.
When: Barry died in the morning. I hadn't slept in over 72 hours. So after we finished everything at the hospital, I went to my parents' house to take a nap. I knew I would need sleep to be able to think clearly and control my emotions when I told William. I also knew that once I told him, I would need to be available to answer questions and comfort him. I couldn't just tell him and disappear. So I slept first. Then, that evening, we had the conversation.
Where: I told William in our home. I wanted to tell him somewhere safe and somewhere where I could control the situation. I told him in our living room. It is a "neutral" room for him that he doesn't spend a lot of time in. I chose to tell him there because I did not want to attach negative memories to his bedroom - a place we had spent a great deal of time and effort to make a safe and peaceful place for him or his playroom.
Why: "Why?" seems like a silly thing to explain, but it is actually the most important. I'll explain the process I went through to tell William in the next section, but why I chose to do it the way I did was this: My goal in everything I do in parenting William is to point him to Jesus. So, in telling William that his daddy had died, my goal was to point him to Jesus. Jesus is where he would find comfort. Jesus is where he would find healing. Jesus is where he could take his questions, fear, anger and pain. Jesus was what would give him hope. And in the coming years, when he looks back on this tragedy, I want him to see Jesus. That Jesus loves him and carried him through this.
How: While it seemed like time stood still, the actual conversation I had with William only took a few minutes. I used his Bible - the same one we read out of every night. We read the story of Jesus' crucifixion. We talked about that fact that Jesus died - his body stopped working. He did not breath, speak, move, hear, see or think any more. This also meant that, once He died, he no longer felt pain any more. Then I told William that his daddy had died too. I explained that, just like Jesus, daddy's body no longer worked any more and that he was gone. We talked about the fact that Jesus died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins. We are sinners. We deserve to die. When we die, we deserve separation from God because God is perfect. But, because God loves us and wants a relationship with us, He sent Jesus to take our punishment for sin by dying on the cross. I told William that his daddy loved and trusted Jesus with his whole heart. (This was something that William knew from other conversations we had had before Barry died.) Because Jesus had died on the cross and because daddy loved and trusted Jesus, when daddy died he went to heaven to be with God. We talked about heaven and that daddy would stay in heaven with God. And I told him that daddy would never come back to earth with us.
William listened and cried. I think he cried more because I was crying than out of actual grief. Over the next several weeks and months, we would have this conversation or similar ones over and over again. He asked questions and cried a lot. The above conversation was the beginning point of him understanding death.
There is a lot I don't remember about that day. I'm sure I made a fool of myself throughout the day. But I remember my conversation with William so clearly. I remember that, in the midst of overwhelming grief and pain, the Holy Spirit spoke through me to bring truth and comfort to my son. I didn't know what to say. But God took care of the words for me. He was so generous and so faithful.
There is not a set way to tell children about death. The important thing is to love, protect and comfort them while pointing them to truth - to Jesus.
Father, bless these words and the people reading them. Open our eyes to the truth of your gospel. For those experiencing tragedy and loss, hold them close and comfort them. As we walk with our children through grief, give us strength and wisdom to point them to Jesus. Thank you for Jesus and what He did on the cross. I love and trust you. Amen.