It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. About five years ago, on the afternoon of my first prenatal appointment for our fourth child, our whole little family waited eagerly in the ultrasound room to see the form of a tiny baby and hear the sweet whirring of a little heartbeat. But what we saw instead confirmed my husband’s and my worst fears. And soon we found ourselves facing three little girls who would have to be told why they’d seen no signs of life from their unborn sibling.
When tragedy strikes, it can be natural to want to shield our children from the truth. I see this idea sometimes in our culture, when in young children’s TV shows every villain has a change of heart by the end and a lost toy is considered a “super big problem.” No conflict is terribly scary, and everything works out perfectly in the end. I can understand why we wouldn’t want to expose our young children to the realities of evil and suffering and death. But I can’t help but feel that we are doing them a disservice when we try to pretend like these things don’t happen.
Granted, neither my children nor even myself have seen as much tragedy as some. I know what it’s like to lose a child I never saw, but not one with whom I spent years, or a grown sibling or a spouse or a parent. I don’t pretend to know what those who lost loved ones in the Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs shootings are going through right now, so I can’t speak to those who were personally affected. But as far as tragedies in general, I think it’s important that we not shy away from the truth when we talk about them to our children. In my experience with our miscarriage and the more recent deaths of a couple loved ones, I’m glad we took the opportunity to be open and honest with our children and help to walk them through it.
Here are a few things we can do:
1) Explain what happened in an age-appropriate way. Of course we don’t want to get into unnecessarily gory details, but we also try not to be overly euphemistic. We don’t tell our kids that Easter is about the bunny, or that babies come from the Stork, and similarly we don’t hesitate to tell them that there are some very bad / misguided / crazy people in the world who do very bad things. In the case of deaths from natural causes, we do not hide from them that sometimes babies have physical problems or that people can get very sick and die. We did put it into more gentle terms back when the oldest was only five, but we still tried to keep to the truth.
2) Answer their questions as best we can, but realize that not all questions may have satisfactory answers. I vividly remember my oldest asking, “But why did Jesus take the baby away?” Oh, child…If I could answer that question, I would be the greatest theologian that ever lived. The only answer I could give her is that just like there are times when my decisions or judgments don’t make sense to her, sometimes God’s will doesn’t make sense to us. Sometimes only He knows why He allows what He does, and we just have to trust that He still loves us and knows what’s best.
3) Allow them to grieve. With the girls being so young when I miscarried, they recovered from the sadness fairly quickly, especially since they ended up receiving a new brother not too long thereafter. Within the past several months, though, we have attended the funeral of both my grandmother and our children’s babysitter, a woman about my mom’s age who held a special place in our family’s hearts. The latter funeral was the first our children had ever attended, and initially I wasn’t sure they should go. But we decided that it might be a good opportunity for them to get some closure, especially since they hadn’t really had a chance to say goodbye before she passed. Our sensitive second-born definitely shed her share of tears, and just the other day she came to me weeping because a song had brought back memories of the funeral. But after a good cry and a big hug, she settled down, and I talked to her about how it can be good to reminisce about those we’ve loved. Even though it might hurt sometimes, keeping them in our memories ensures that they will never fully leave us.
4) Look to the Gospel message for hope. Believers can be assured that we will meet again with those who have gone before us to meet the Lord. When the salvation of the deceased is unsure, we can pray that God uses their loss to spread the Gospel to their friends and family. And when we are tempted to fear for our safety when we hear stories like the ones in Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs, we can remember that no matter what may happen to us on this earth, our future in Heaven is secure.
These discussions are never easy. But I think helping them to navigate these deep emotions is an important part of our calling as parents, and through it they can be more prepared to encounter the fallen world in which we live.
P.S. The picture above is from Yellowstone, which my husband and I recently visited. The tree trunks pictured here were, I believe, burned nearly thirty years ago in a forest fire that swept across the park. They are evidence of the scar that the park still bears, yet there is a beauty in them as well. And all over the park, I can now see the growth of new trees where charred remains once stood. A deep wound may leave a scar, but that’s not where the story has to end.
Photo Credit: Image courtesy of author.