There are two things to remember in addressing death with our children. First, if a parent is uncomfortable speaking on this issue, then do not try to discuss this with your child. Speak first with your parish priest. He might be able to help you work through your own discomfort. Once that is done and you are at peace, then broach this topic your child. Parents need to be examples to their children in how they cope with death. They need to model the emotions they want their kids to express about death.
Second, there is no age requirement (i.e. ten or older) for children to go to a funeral home or church for visitation and the funeral service. The best thing to do with your children, even with infants, is to have them attend the services and visitations. This offers the opportunity to speak with young children about death and the fact that in the Orthodox Church death is seen as a pathway to eternal life. Recently I saw a parent bring her infant daughter to the casket of the recently departed Archpriest John Matusiak. Her child looked at his body and stared at it for a while, then the mother moved on. Seeing the dead body of Fr. John in no way traumatized her daughter.
Parents remind your children that it is OK to be sad andglad when someone they care about dies; sad because they care about them and will miss them; glad because now he or she rests in the Lord, having passed believing in the hope of the Resurrection. When people die that are not Orthodox Christians or not in good standing with the Church, we pray and commend their souls to the mercy of God. We make no judgment as to “where they are going.” This needs to be shared with children.
It is also important to remind kids that it is OK to cry when viewing a body or during the services. I happened to attend a service a while ago for a three-year-old child that died from a serious illness. There was a lot of crying going on even among the children there. Yet at the same time our funeral services and visitation of the dead person would be meaningless if Christ is not raised from the dead. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
Death is not normal in one sense. It is an enemy that needs to be defeated. We were not created for death but for life. If a body that has died is left alone it decays, it rots, it smells, and it becomes ugly. Christ came to free us from this ugly enemy that has robbed us of our true destiny. The Paschal Troparion expresses the essence of what our Lord’s Death and Resurrection accomplished: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
That is why whenever someone passes, regardless of their age, there is this feeling among those grieving that one has been robbed. Even when someone is old and ill, there is an experience of something being stolen and taken. This brings with it the full range of emotions a person copes with as death enters one’s life. As one goes about teaching a child about death, kids need to be prepared for the many emotions they will encounter at a service or visitation. Some will cry, some will be stoic, and others happy. Not everyone deals with loss in the same way.
May we all come to an ever-growing understanding of death as a passage (Pascha) to life in the Orthodox Church. This is so because He is risen!
The blessing of the Lord be upon you,
The unworthy +Paul