Explaining death and suffering to children
In the days following the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, even very young children are asking questions like, “Why does God allow so much suffering in the world? Why does he allow poverty, war, and evil? Is God powerless? Is the devil stronger than God?” Although such thoughts may never even occur to some children, they will cause considerable worry to others.
Make time to talk with your child whenever you sense the slightest insecurity. Maybe his or her class has discussed the recent disaster; maybe he or she has seen something on the news; maybe a classmate’s relative has been injured or even died. No matter how horrible the tragedy seems to you, it will loom even larger in the child’s mind. Listen to him or her, answer any questions he or she might have, and provide comfort and reassurance.
In speaking about death and other riddles of human existence with a young child, it is always good to remember that these mysteries lie in God’s hands. Children are quicker than adults to understand this. Their minds are simple and unencumbered by adult ideas, and their questions can be answered simply and straightforwardly. The main thing is to assure them that all life comes from God and goes back to God, and that, because of this, they do not need to fear death.
In my experience that is usually enough; to try to explain more or to speculate further may only confuse or worry them. Emphasize God’s power over life and death, and point out the many passages in the Bible that tell us how wonderful it will someday. In the beginning, everything and everyone lived in harmony and peace. That is how God wanted it to be, and that is how it will be again when his peaceable kingdom comes on the earth.
As children grow up, it is vital that they experience the faith of their parents. Without it, they will not have the assurance they need to cope with the suffering they are bound to face themselves sooner or later. Every decade brings new tragedies–earthquakes and floods, hunger, wars, violence, and crime.
When children ask about suffering, impress on them that, despite sickness and pain, poverty, war, and injustice, God is all-powerful, and that in the end his love will rule. Explain to them that all need and suffering in the world is a deep pain to God, especially the suffering of innocent people.
Help them to see that it is not God’s fault that people hate each other and start wars–it is people’s fault. It never hurts to tell children, too, that even though we cannot understand suffering and death, we do know they are a part of God’s plan. Naturally this should not be done in a way that might frighten them. If you are able to bring the need of the world to your children in a way that helps them to understand the suffering of others, they will feel compassion rather than fear. And when they do express fear or worry, remind them that each of them has a guardian angel who has access to God on their behalf.
Lastly, tell your children that God promised he will never burden us with more than we can bear. No matter how great a child’s fears, he or she must be helped to believe that God is always there. If we hold on to that, nothing can shatter our faith.