Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Conversations with kids about death

We’ve been talking a lot about death in my family. Christy lost a beloved great-uncle last Friday; happily, she and Sarah got to pay him a visit a few days before he died. And one of our cats, Epitome, is getting very old and creaky, and we’re waiting for word from the vet on whether her kidneys are failing. Sarah is aware that our kitty will probably die in the next few months, if not sooner.

After all this, I found myself being asked last night, “What’s Ash Wednesday?” If the “sex talk” is the one that scares parents the most, the “death talk” may come in a close second. Yet kids don’t carry the same baggage we do about death. Sarah knows that we will all die someday, and we've talked about it many times since she was about two. So by now, I wasn't scared at all ... just a little overwhelmed.

I explained to Sarah that Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, and that at this service, a priest or deacon marks your forehead with ashes in the shape of a cross and says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

"Dust?" Sarah laughed about that. I tried to explain a little about the idea of returning to the earth, but mostly, I just let the liturgical language speak for itself. Better yet, Sarah will get to experience it first-hand tomorrow night.

I love to tell the Godly Play story of Abraham and Sarah. Kids eat this story up—they love that it takes place in a giant sandbox, and they love the language about how “people don’t go into the desert unless they absolutely have to.” They love the language describing prayer: "Abraham came so close to God, and God came so close to him, that Abraham knew what God wanted him to do." And: "Abraham went up on a hill and prayed again, and God was there too. God wasn't just here or there ... God was everywhere!"

At one point late in the story, I tell the story of Sarah dying, and later, of Abraham dying. I dig a little pit in the sand with my finger to indicate the burial of a body. While I’m doing this, I quietly cover the figure of the dead person with my hand and remove it; most kids don’t notice where it went because they’re focusing on my finger digging in the sand.

I always ask the kids after a Godly Play story, “What was your favorite part?” The vast majority of kids talk about the deaths. Kids love to hear death spoken of gently, respectfully, reverently. And they love to hear, “By this time, Sarah was very old and full of years. She died, and Abraham buried her in a cave near the Oaks of Mamre.”

Kids make sense of the world by playing. For them, death is just one more thing about life that needs to have sense made of it. Liturgy is how adults play, to make sense of the most important things in life and beyond life.

Consider bringing your kids to an Ash Wednesday service tomorrow night. Don’t worry about whether they sit quietly the whole time. Bring crayons and paper. You may not think they’re “getting anything out of it." But it is by bringing our children to church that, over time, they learn to speak the language of Christianity and make sense of the relationship they already have with God, who loves them and speaks to them in the silence of their hearts every day.

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