Children at the Grave: Making Space for Grief

By Florer-Bixler, Melissa | The Christian Century, March 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Children at the Grave: Making Space for Grief


Florer-Bixler, Melissa, The Christian Century


LAST SPRING the principal of my daughter's elementary school invited me to attend career day. I showed up in the lobby, alb on hanger, and sat with a pizza shop owner, filmmaker, and cardiologist before being ushered into the classroom to share about my job as a pastor. I'd brought pictures with me of some of the things I do--Sunday school, hospital visits, committee meetings, and funerals.

The children were mostly interested in the funerals. "Have you ever seen a dead person?" one asked. "Do you have to dig the hole to bury them?" "What happens when you die?" "Someone told me that dead people go to heaven. Is that true?"

Eventually the teacher announced that it was time for the next parent to take my place, but the children wouldn't let me go. Robed in white and crouched on a blue plastic chair, I watched as a small line formed in front of me. I felt like a priest hearing confession as each child came forward and whispered in my ear a story of death.

"My cousin, he got killed selling drugs," one boy said in a hushed tone, looking around to make sure no one was watching him. "He owed a gang money. They threatened to kill his mother."

A girl came up next. She looked me in the eye and said, quietly, "My baby brother died last year. We had a funeral. I was so sad. I am still sad."

They talked to me about what they'd seen, what had happened to their lives. They shared with me their grief and bewilderment. I realized that this might be the first time they had told anyone these stories. We often shield our children from death. We hide the news, tuck it away, hoping that we can avoid a collision of sorrow and childhood. We want to guard these precious years. But children know. They are seers, reading our bodies and anxiety and energy. They know much more than sometimes we hope they do.

Recently I preached at the funeral of a 99-year-old member of my congregation. As I sat in a back room behind the sanctuary, preparing the family for the service, I noticed two of Doreen's great-grandchildren, a little boy and a little girl, sitting in a couple of the chairs. The girl was crying. I went over to them. "Is this your first funeral?" I asked. The girl nodded her head yes. I talked her through the service. We talked about cremation, about the box with her grandma's ashes. I told her we would sing, and pray, and tell stories. I let her know that if she had any questions she could talk to me after the service.

Many children, including my own, are fascinated with death--fascinated by talking about it, acting it out, and making light of it. I recently sat next to a little boy who introduced himself to me by sharing his name and age. The next fact he offered was that his grandmother was dead. This event was significant; it marked him. …

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