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When a child grieves

How to explain death to children

The family life of a third grader nicknamed “Lolek” Wojtyla changed forever when his mother, Emilia, died.  His big brother, Mundek, was a victim of scarlet fever three years later.  Despite these childhood losses, Karol Jósef Wojtyla became known as a pope who spread a message of hope.  In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote, “an indestructible life, revealed in the resurrection of Christ, ‘swallows,’ so to speak, death.” (p. 22) But this message also noted that our tasks can be “extraordinarily demanding.”

Even when we are in mourning ourselves, we need to address the questions of children and comfort them in their own grief. Children’s questions reflect the universal sorrow of those who have lost the ones they love:

Why do people have to die? Is it my fault?

Everything that is alive will eventually die. Flowers die, pets die, and people die, too. Sometimes people have very serious illnesses, sometimes they get into dangerous situations, and sometimes they get very old and their bodies just wear out. But misbehaving or wishing that someone was dead can’t make a person die.

Why did my mother die?

We prayed for her to get well. 

Only God knows about the timing of each of our deaths and how prayers are answered. Keep talking about how you feel to your father and to other adults that you love. Keep praying, and remember that Jesus cried and was angry sometimes. You don’t have to wait until you are in a good mood to pray.  If you are feeling angry at God because your mother died, then you can be honest and talk to God about those feelings, also.

Why do we visit my father at the cemetery if he is in heaven?

When a person’s body dies, it becomes separated from the soul. Souls who enter into life with God are said to be entering “heaven.” Heaven isn’t a place that we can travel to, or find on a map. We can’t send letters to people who are there or receive e-mail from them. But we know that those who are with God are happy. A trip to the cemetery is one way to remember loved ones who have died. You can pray for your father and ask him to pray for you. (CCC #958) Visiting the grave also reminds us of the words of our creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body …”

Visiting a grave can be like looking at a photograph; it is a way to remember the life of the person we loved so much and a way to remind ourselves that we will be reunited some day.