This post stems from a question asked on a previous post about fragile baby chicks.
I remember the morning when my daughter, then still barely learning to walk, toddled around the corner of our home to find a dead bird on the ground. She could see clearly that it was a bird, but that it was not acting like a bird. “It’s dead,” I told her, aware that this was the first time that word had meaning for her.
Death has a way of surprising us like that, just around the corner of our home on the morning we least expect it, never when we’re ready to explain it to kids.
A friend asked how our kids have dealt with seeing chicks die, and with death and sadness in general. It was my daughter’s idea to bury the first chick, and she wrote on a board we pounded into the ground above it: “Here lies Polar Bear, the little chick who couldn’t walk.”
Remembering, marking, celebrating, honoring. These are all parts of accepting death, and they help us cope when death has already happened. But I think the real work of dealing with death needs to happen during the living, on the gorgeous spring days when all is bright.
We try to be honest about life’s limits. “Life isn’t fair” isn’t just an angry line we grunt at our kids when they want a bigger piece of cake, it’s a lesson we teach our kids. It’s reality—they’re going to get let down in life. They’re going to go without stuff, and get let down. It wasn’t fair that Jesus had to get the death penalty, and it isn’t fair that we’ll have to suffer for reasons beyond our control. In every life there will be a time to weep as well as to laugh.
But we need not fear. At around age 7 our daughter went through a stage of feeling afraid every night before going to sleep. After a while she wasn’t even sure what she was afraid of. She told me she was just “Afraid of being afraid.” Night after night we would console her, until one day we hit a breakthrough. It was midafternoon, not the dark of night, and we sat on our porch and talked about all the things in life to be afraid of. Not getting along in school. Being left alone. Terrible sickenesses. A parent dying. Naming them in daylight helped.
And so did the words to a song that she’d learned with a group of friends in South Africa:
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
firm through the fiercest drought and storm…
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
We talked about words like “destiny,” and what it means that Jesus is in charge of it. We talked about Jesus being there no matter what storms life gives. We talked about not having to fear death because God has even that under control.
It was one of the most important conversations about God I’ve ever had with my children. I realized as she sat there, tears streaming down her face, that this is what it’s all about. If Jesus isn’t hope for these moments, he’s not worth anything at all.
And she got it. I remember her tears drying, her sitting next to me quiet, accepting. And the nighttime fear stopped, just like a light switch had been turned on somewhere deep inside her and it wasn’t dark inside anymore.
Our kids have seen more dead animals than most kids their age. They saw chickens killed and plucked and served up for lunch in Africa by kids around the age they are now. Within a week of moving into our home we had to catch and drown a groundhog who had made a home under our living room. Last summer a band of coons ate our first batch of chickens, starting a summer of tribal warfare between the coons versus us and our trap. They watch our outdoor cats munching down mice and chipmunks and birds. They watched me cut up a deer leg on our kitchen counter that my in-laws hunted.
All this has them maybe even a little too comfortable with death. When we put down our rooster, a mean old bastard who attacked every human who crossed our yard threatening to dig his sharp talons and beak into my children’s faces, my daughter asked if we could mount his head and put it on her wall. This summer after the time coons nearly ate our nesting hen, the kids started researching youtube videos on making coon-skin caps, and we found ourselves in one of the strangest most amazing days yet—skinning a raccoon with our children watching.
All this gets them familiar with the physical thing called death. Our son, watching the rooster breath his last, asked innocently, “Will my body twitch like that when I die?” I never expected to be answering that question for a seven-year-old.
And yet I answer these questions as honestly as I can, because I believe they should know. They should know that death is real, it is not so far away, it will come to us all. Too many adults have never really accepted these things, either. It isn’t fun, and it is often terribly sad, the most sad of all things we experience in life. It isn’t to be taken lightly, even with the animals that end up on our table. Sometimes I wish I knew one of the North American Indian ceremonies I heard about in my anthropology class this spring to say thank you to the animals that give their lives so we can live—for the rooster, for the deer, even for store-bought beef, even for the raccoons.
We talk about these things in night and day, while death seems both near and far, because in the end, without hope of eternity, without hope in death, there is no hope in life. Without a vision for the continuity of one life into the next, that an eternal life can be born in us here that goes on through to the next, I could not face this death thing myself, nor could I find much hope in life right now. In Christ alone, my hope is found.