children processing death


Last week I published a letter from Nathan Jernigan, a licensed psychotherapist who attends our sending congregation in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  In it Nathan offered advice as to how we ought to help our children through trauma and tragedy; this was written in response to the Sandy Hook shootings.

I mentioned in that post I’d like to share some of my thoughts on children dealing with death.  So today I am.

Here is the letter I wrote Nathan in response to his advice (I’ve bolded a few thoughts):

Nathan, this is Brett Harrison writing from Geita, Tanzania.  I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you having written this for everyone at Stones River (and even their missionaries abroad).  While the shootings in Newtown aren’t something about which we’ve heard a great deal — and while the oldest of our children is only three — your words are very much appreciated.  

Our daughters regularly are witness to sickness, sadness, and tragedy here in Geita; and navigating these situations is difficult for me at times.  The event which stands out the most is when we passed a bad motorcycle wreck and served as an ambulance for the wounded.  Christie crowded in next to our girls in order to make room for those involved in the accident.  One young man died in our truck that day, and the whole situation was gory to say the least.  To be honest, I remember very little how we dealt with our daughter’s questions during that ride and in the following days.  The only thing I remember with any clarity is telling Baylor that we needed to take these people to the hospital because they were hurt, and that it’s nice of us to help them.

There are days when I shudder at what my daughters will see and experience as little girls, and I surely don’t want to expose them to events which might scar them.  But most of the time I feel that some of this early processing is good for them.  I believe in the U.S. we have unhealthily distanced ourselves from death.  Children, then, never get a chance to learn to deal with death as a very natural part of (or end to) life.  That is, they never deal with it until it’s a grandparent or someone very close to them.  I can’t help but think that sorting some of this out ahead of time might be beneficial — not only to prepare my girls for future deaths closer to home, but also to help them understand both the value, and the transient nature, of life.

I’m uncomfortable with how much we hide sickness and death in the United States.  And I don’t believe it’s good for our children.  Death has been banished away to hospitals, funeral parlors, nursing homes, and out-of-the-way cemeteries — so we don’t have to witness it in everyday life.  I should clarify: real life death has been hidden away.  Death portrayed in movies, television, and video games is still okay with us — though its impact and repercussions are often obscured in those art forms.  This very selective (and backwards) sheltering of our children from death doesn’t seem to help them learn to process mortality well.

I want my girls to understand that life on this earth ends.  I don’t want Baylor and Harper to think of blood as dirty or scary or evil or (even as) entertainment, but I want them to see it as precious and life-giving.  I want my daughters to greatly value life while understanding full well that it is ephemeral.  I want them to process death before it’s my death they’re processing.  And I want my girls to prepare for death, rather than fear it.

My daughters have ridden in our truck beside the dead and dying.  Our Tanzanian friends regularly experience loss of family members. Funerals touch our lives here more than do weddings.  Coffins are sold on the street outside of hospitals.  The girls watch me slaughter and break down pigs — and Baylor understands that’s where her bacon and sausage come from.  We don’t hide death here.

And I’m fairly confident we shouldn’t.


* The opportunity to process blood and death  is also one of the reasons I think we should keep Halloween around.  I believe processing mortality is healthy, and Halloween’s about all we’ve got left (in the states).



Filed under family, just thinking

7 responses to “children processing death

  1. Ted

    What about sheltering kids from things like random violence, murder, or evil?

    • i guess i haven’t thought about that much, ted-o. my children aren’t generally in a position to see random violence or murder. i’m certainly not against being discriminating with what i allow my children to see, though — according to age, maturity, and the like. when we were carrying the injured and dying (one already dead) folks to the hospital in our truck, i actually tried to prevent baylor from looking directly at the leg snapped in half with blood everywhere.

      it’s not that i think my girls have to see and experience everything, all at once, unfiltered. rather, i just don’t think i should hide one entire area of life (death, that is) away from her. [and i especially don’t think i should refuse to let her see it in real life, but then let her watch it in movies where it’s not dealt with appropriately at all (my opinion).] i should at least be discussing these things with them, to the extent they can understand.

      i’m completely fine with revealing death little by little, and not moving into violence until far later. but were i living in the states, i definitely would be talking with my daughter about violence and murder right now — though i wouldn’t let her watch it on the news. [and, really, who sees things like murder and violence in person anyway?] but what i see in the states is parents never discussing death or allowing children to see truly sick (or dead) people. we just pretend that it doesn’t exist.

      and i don’t want to suggest that this is at the core of school shootings, but i do believe the two have got to be in some way at least related. when the only death we experience is in movies and video games, it just doesn’t seem real. i don’t know that we understand what it really is we’re dealing with. it seems like this would allow us to devalue life and play with death as if it’s only entertainment. i wonder how many school shootings we’d have if kids visited nursing homes and experienced death in a way that could be discussed with their parents. not saying it would change anything, but i’d be interested at least to know.

  2. randy morgan

    totally agree with your premise, brett, but i’m not hopeful about anything changing in this area anytime soon. how do we help our children process the concept of mortality when we (american adults) dance around the issue? i can’t tell you how much bad theology i’ve heard preached at funerals. none of us has a healthy perspective on our mortality.

  3. nixthings

    I agree with you, death is too hidden and removed. Even things like where our food comes from is lost in our highly industrialised societies. Your children are actually quite blessed to have such introductions to life/death within your loving family. However, you will never get me to use that as an excuse to keep halloween! Hopefully one day Australia will give it up for good…it’s not even on at the right time of year here.

    I have appreciated your expat views especially as you deal with death and dying and your children’s exposure to it in daily way.

  4. This is not something I’ve thought about since Eloise is so little still but I know it will have to be addressed eventually. I don’t want to hide it from Eloise either, and I certainly don’t want her to see the media/entertainment version. So I’m not really sure how to proceed, but I liked reading your thoughts on the matter.

  5. Zee

    Your post reminded me of a quote from one of my top favorite novels, When Heaven Weeps, by Ted Dekker:

    “What a terrible thing it is for children to see death, you say. We have it all wrong. If you make a child terrified of death, he won’t embrace it so easily. And death must be embraced if you wish to follow Christ. Listen to His teaching. ‘Unless you become like a child…and unless you take up your cross daily, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ One is not valuable without the other. “

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