Talking about Death with Students

This year, it’s been my great honor and privilege to come alongside a group of insightful fourth graders as they grapple with important questions about the character of God. It has been bittersweet to see how they have coped with the pandemic, and the many instructional changes we’ve experienced this year. I’ve seen several students who have the blessing of greater parental supervision blossom in ways that to be honest, surprised us. I’ve seen other students who are not able to receive more supervision treading water. As of now, we are challenging them to internalize greater levels of responsibility that some aren’t yet ready to receive. At 10 years old, many of them have the skills to cope with basic technological challenges and self-care, but when it comes to emotional maturity, it can be easy to forget just how young they are. I know that many are longing for better days.

As students have coped with the loss of routine and social opportunities, violence in D.C., fear for themselves and family members due to the pandemic, and more, we’ve talked very openly about grief. For the time being, we continue to circle back to themes related to God’s loving-kindness, knowing him as our refuge, and trusting that even if we don’t see it yet, we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

These conversations have been beyond necessary. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve needed to discuss grief, anger, and dying as a necessity. I have students who have recently lost grandparents to COVID, students whose parents are battling cancer, and another student who has been coping with the loss of his mother. In a recent letter-writing assignment, this same student articulated a sense of grief that many seem to share.

How could you let this happen, God?”

Such relatable grief.

While our school community is fully united to support these precious fourth graders and this young man in particular, it seemed like another conversation was in order, specifically to address the hopelessness so many of them are facing. In ongoing reflection and prayer, I’ve held all these things loosely before the Lord. Without intentionally seeking, I sensed the Lord giving me an explicit structure for how to have this conversation, based on a controversial story my friend Abbie once shared. What students needed to be reminded of most was the goodness and joy of life and that life is worth living. Already this year, we’ve shared memories about lost loved ones and talked about how celebrating individuals’ lives can help us cope with their deaths. But beyond that, Jesus shows us that on the other side of death is celebration. Death does not have the final word.

Introductory Discussion

So at 10am on Friday, after giving reminders and updates and making sure most of us were awake, I asked them plainly,

“Does God want people to die? And if he can stop people from dying, why doesn’t he?”

Without much effort, they were hooked.

  • A said, “It’s inevitable that people die, and God can’t possibly stop everyone from dying.”
  • B, “If everyone lived forever and didn’t die, we’d run out of room.”
  • C said, “Maybe God decided to limit people’s life spans so that we wouldn’t completely ruin the Earth with pollution and other human habits (ex: limit the damage”).

Sensing their slightly negative opinions of humans as a whole, I asked,

“Do you think that any of the people would use their long lives to make the world a better place?”

C quickly told me that “Even if some people would make the world a better place, it might not be the majority. And that by God doing nothing, that still wouldn’t take care of the problem of evil.”

Pivoting slightly, I explained that I had a controversial story to share that I hoped would help us think more about these themes.

Story

“A few years ago, there was a couple in California who were about to have a baby. They did everything you are supposed to do to prepare. The mom and the dad both made sure the mom had enough healthy food to eat and was able to rest. They made that the baby had everything it needed to grow.

Eventually, it was time for the baby to come. The baby was born strong and healthy. But then something unexpected happened. For no clear reason, the baby died.”

More Discussion

“What do you think the couple probably did next?”, I asked them.

  • They probably cried, said D
  • Mourned, said E
  • Prayed, said F

More Story

“Believe it or not,” I said, “they actually prayed for God to resurrect the baby, and for her to come back to life. They asked for all of their friends and family and even their church to pray too. And they asked even people they didn’t know to pray.”

“In your opinion, is it okay to pray for that? Is praying for resurrection a good thing, or should they do something else?

A bomb had been dropped.

CONTROVERSY

  • Ever the secular humanist, Z said: “Of course, parents want to feel better, it makes sense they prayed that.”

“Sure,” I said. “But is the purpose of their prayer to be comforted, to see the baby resurrect, or both?”

  • With a touch of bluntness and over-spiritualizing, P said “Maybe the baby would be better off in Heaven, since Heaven is better than Earth.”

“Maybe”, I said. But what if God still had things for the baby to do with her life? What if there were still things he wanted her to do or become?”

  • With an Ecclesiastes 3 kind of stoic balance, N said, “They shouldn’t pray that. Instead, they should accept that the baby died and celebrate the babies legacy” (10/10 for word choice)

“And they could,” I said. “But what if they aren’t ready to accept that yet?”

  • With a Job-like sense of discontent, H said, “They shouldn’t pray that, because if God wanted the baby to live, the baby would still be alive. Why would God let the baby die if he was going to resurrect her? Why make them suffer?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But if there is no resurrection, then we have no reason to celebrate Jesus. And if you believe that he will resurrect you to bring you with him to Heaven, maybe he can do those things already today.”

  • Lastly, with a tone of punishment that sent a shiver down my spine, O said, “They should pray harder. They shouldn’t be asking other people to pray. If they really cared that the baby was dead, they’d pray more. Sometimes God takes your family members if you don’t pray enough.”

Trying to directly react without whiplash, I said, “I’m not sure about that. I’ve actually known friends about my age or even a little older who have had babies and lost them, and it really messed them up. Or even people I know who’ve lost family members or loved ones, and they struggle to pray. Sometimes you care so much, it messes you up in a way that makes prayer really difficult. Sometimes you need other people to pray with you when you can’t pray for yourself. The Holy Spirit does that for us all the time. He prays for us with “groanings deeper than words,” even when we think we know how to pray for ourselves. And I’m not sure that praying harder would’ve changed the outcome, unfortunately. Sometimes people just die and it’s no one’s fault.”

Summarizing

I debriefed with them, and ultimately said,

“The reason we talked about this today is because it is an important question that even adults struggle with. For questions like these, I believe that we only ever understand a little on this side of Heaven, they are mysteries so big that only God knows.

Not just that, but the answers aren’t always the same in each situation. The story I told you today was based on a true story. In that story from real life, the couple’s baby did die. At the same time, I know people who have died and come back to life. I know other people who prayed for healing and prayed for resurrection, and nothing happened.

{At this point, a student interjected to share a story of a miracle he had heard, with incredible sincerity}

” One thing that I do want you to know is that praying for healing is not a new thing. Anointing people with oil and praying for them to be healed is even a sacrament of the Catholic Church! We pray, and see doctors, and ask God to heal us. But there are sometimes where people die. And like {N} said, then we mourn and have to accept it. And it can take a long time to feel better. But you can take your anger and sadness to God, because he is so close to you. He will let you be angry at him because he can handle it. And eventually, things will get a little better, even if you keep missing them. Things usually do get better because life is worth living, and it’s both beautiful and sad.”

After a little more discussion, I reassured them that this isn’t necessarily the end of the conversation. We can always come back to these things if they want to talk about them. Or even if they want to talk about other stuff but just want company, that’s why we [as a school community] are here.

Resilience and Lightness

To me, the most important part of this conversation is the fact that students had an open forum to think about life, death, and the power of God. I was a little afraid before the conversation that these topics raised more questions that they gave answers, that my particular student whose parent passed would be further upset by any talk of supernatural healing/resurrection, and that it would be awkward or weird. However, I did not expect the ridiculous amount of student engagement that such a simple question could inspire. While I was happy to see so many of my quieter students talking, my goal was to help students feel comfortable talking about the important issues surrounding death, not solely stir up controversy.

To my surprise, in asking if they were ready to move onto another topic, students’ body language and tone of voice seemed strong and steady. They didn’t seem to have been traumatized by the conversation, but even seemed to be relieved. I asked them whether they felt weird talking about death, and was given a resounding “No, we’re okay,” from so many. We did eventually move on to lighter fare and they had some quality time with each other being goofy over Zoom that afternoon.

My Personal Thoughts

While I have never been one to shy away from a hard topic, this conversation pushed me to my limits. It seemed to have met a real need that students’ had to be heard and to ask questions, but I still conversations of this depth need to be done carefully, with plenty of thoughtful prayer and dialogue with God in advance if possible. I know that my students have a desire to be taken seriously based on their age, but I also want to make sure that I’m selecting my words thoughtfully to be relatable as possible while still relatively gentle. Conversations about life and death take up a special kind of holy ground that shouldn’t be trampled but carefully treaded. In these conversations, our words follow Jesus in his journey from the suffering of the cross into the hope of the resurrection and a time without pain. It is necessary to follow Jesus both to the cross and then towards the hope of Heaven (not necessarily needing to rush, but allowing the Lord to guide us). We should neither fixate on death nor over-spiritualize suffering to hide from it.

Personally, I believe in God’s power to heal the sick and even raise the dead. I believe that while many people would prefer to receive a miraculous healing, prayer and medical treatment can compliment one another to treat conditions, and are not mutually exclusive. Lastly, I believe that it’s important to allow Jesus to meet us in our suffering, even when we are in pain. The Lord truly is strong in our weakness.

These are the verses I’ve used to make sense of these concepts for myself. This image isn’t necessarily meant to be prescriptive, but is freely available to anyone who may find it helpful.

Published by Haley Nus

I am a bilingual Christian Educator in the heart of D.C. who longs to see revival transform K-12 education both domestically and internationally. I believe that inquiry-based and experiential teaching methods pair seamlessly with godly awe and point us through the gospel towards a Creator who invites us to taste and see his goodness (Psalm 34:8). While I love sharing the gospel with people, I take Jesus's invitation to welcome children in his name (Luke 9:48) and Jesus's exhortation to become like children (Mathew 18:3) literally! In order to shape the world well for adults, we must serve the youngest among us so that we will truly understand who we are as sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18).

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