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The fall of 2019 was rough for my family. In early September, my maternal great grandmother died ‘full of years’ at the remarkable age of 102. In October, my dad’s dad went on to glory at 82 after a short illness, and three weeks later, my own dad died at 56 after a truly horrific struggle with a cancer that ate away his insides and left him unable to eat for the last year of his life.
That fall, each time I strapped my one-and three-year-old children into their carseats for the 12-hour drive to Iowa for another funeral, I kissed their foreheads and prayed that God would give me the wisdom to explain to them why so many of their nanas and papas kept leaving.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days, partly because I tend to get antsy this time of year. They say ‘the body keeps the score,’ and I’ve noticed that each mid-September since 2019 I feel the urge to drive. As the days grow shorter and the evenings cool, I look westward, expecting a phone call that will pull me from my routines and drop me into the chaotic quiet of grief, the space where the shock of death brings stillness and an urgent openness to explore life’s biggest questions.
This (admittedly depressing) headspace is also due, in part, to the fact that I just spent three days launching a new initiative with J. Todd Billings at Western Theological Seminary called the Faith and Illness Initiative. We’re diving deep into theological questions of creaturely limits, suffering, vocation, and virtue for Christians living with chronic illness. As we’ve gathered with theologians, philosophers, doctors and mental health clinicians, pastors, and people living with serious chronic illness, so many questions have been raised (many more questions than answers, by the way).
One of the questions that I’m holding tenderly right now is this: how do we navigate the reality of human mortality, or of any suffering for that matter, with young children?
I don’t know the answer (I’m hoping collective wisdom can help), but I’ve got a few thoughts rattling around.
Here’s one: We need the church.
When the call came that my dad was actively dying, we were having lunch with friends from our congregation, some of the handful my kids call “grandma.” Immediately, they offered to pay for my flight and watched the kids while I rushed home to pack a bag.
Of course, it’s not just that we look to the church to care for us in times of need. The church is a place within which we witness and are trained up in the drama of mortality and suffering. In the church, we celebrate births and baptisms, walk with each other through diagnosis, divorce, financial setback and mental illness. We attend each other’s funerals, and, when we gather in worship, we proclaim our praise to the God who creates and sustains. We honor the One who became human — living, suffering, dying, and rising again to new life — and who calls us to participate in his death and resurrection. When my children participate in a worshiping community, they see the reality of life and death played out in the body of Christ.
Two: We must be honest about our own suffering.
Of course, the church’s witness to the realities of human suffering is limited if God’s people do not come before each other with an honest depiction of their joys and sorrows. Perhaps, in a strange way, I’m glad that the fall of 2019 was so intense. The simple fact of so many family deaths so close together didn’t leave me much option to gloss over my own grief.
I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to hide it from my children, so I made a decision to be honest with them about how I was feeling. If I had tried to ‘protect’ them from the reality of mine and my family’s suffering, I am sure they would have experienced that suffering anyway, and they would have been alienated from the relationships that could support them in their own questions. The simple act of saying “I’m feeling sad,” allowed me to express my grief and invite them into honest conversation at an age appropriate level.
Three: Children are active participants in the Body of Christ.
I was standing in the kitchen, spreading peanut butter on bread, when the call came that my grandpa had passed away. I can’t remember what was said, but I remember gasping, hanging up the phone, and sinking to my knees as tears began to flow. My three-year-old, who was reaching up to grab her sandwich, drew near and asked “What’s wrong, Mommy?” “Oh honey,” I said, “I just found out Tall Papa died.”
I’m not sure what I expected from her. Perhaps tears of her own, or a brief acknowledgement followed by a plea for extra jelly. I know I was focused on her — what she was thinking, how she would respond. In that moment, while I was simultaneously caring for my child and carrying the weight of my grief, my daughter reached up, pulled my face down to hers and held her hands on my cheeks as she said, “It’s okay, Mommy. I’m here with you.”
Friends, children are not just recipients of God’s care, and they are not only learners in the Christian church. They can be ministers and theologians, proclaimers of the Good News that, in Christ, death is not the end and we are not alone. This is not the same as dismissively saying, “kids are resilient”; they still depend on us and need care and training as faithful followers of Jesus. But we should not discount a child’s ability to minister as a full and active member of the Body of Christ.
I’m realizing I haven’t talked much with my kids in recent days about the grief I’m holding even now in this mid-September season. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge with them again, “I’m feeling sad.”