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.