Niki shared these thoughts with a friend who lost a relative unexpectedly. How do you help the children understand death and Heaven? Why did God let this happen? What happens when we die? What’s Heaven like? Niki’s insights are profound and practical. So I pass them along in the event they help —
I am so sorry about what you and your family are going through right now. The loss of a loved one is the deepest pain any of us can experience on this side of eternity. But we can find comfort and peace in the knowledge that God the Father is close to us in that dark night of the soul; that God the Son understands our pain and what it is to be human because He too is human, and He also experienced the pain of losing loved ones when He walked this earth; and that God the Holy Spirit is our Comforter. I pray the love, comfort, and grace of our Lord sustains you and your family during this difficult time.
In terms of how to talk with your kids about this, and even how to process some of this yourself, I have a few thoughts–
First, I encourage you to continue listening to your kids as they process their confusion, and continue to affirm and validate their pain. I would not advise “sugar coating” what’s happened. Kids have a great bull-jazz detector! So, I think it’s healthy to be honest and blunt in your conversations with them about the reality of what you all are experiencing. Death is awful, terrible, painful, and tragic. There is no getting around it. It just plain hurts. It’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to be sad. Jesus cried when his dear friend, Lazarus, died — even though He knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. (John 11).
The sad reality is that death and tragedy are going to be a part of our lives until Jesus returns to make all things new.(Revelation 21:5). Indeed, Jesus was very clear with His disciples that just because they followed Him didn’t mean they would be insulated from the pain and suffering of this world. Quite the opposite, in fact. He told them that they would suffer greatly for His Name’s sake, and that they wouldn’t be sheltered from the human experience of trials and tribulations: “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33).
Second, it’s okay not to have all the answers. Why did God allow your relative to die in this way, and at this time? None of us knows the answer to that question. And as hard as that is, we can still find comfort and peace despite our questions. I remember crying out to God in my pain and hurt over the death of a loved one some years ago. I kept asking Him why the person’s life had ended the way it had, especially after I’d prayed so much for that person over the course of that person’s life. I was both surprised and comforted by God’s answer. He spoke to me and said that even if He answered all of my questions, it wouldn’t change anything for me. My pain wouldn’t go away, and I still wouldn’t understand because I’m only operating on limited information. That made sense to me because the Bible tells us that as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are His ways and thoughts higher than ours. (Isaiah 55:9).
When the Lord revealed that to me, it really settled my heart. I realized that what I really needed in that moment weren’t answers; what I really needed was His comfort. Answers to our questions about why our loved ones have died aren’t necessarily helpful because they don’t change the reality of our pain, and we probably wouldn’t be able to understand God’s answers anyway (much like a child doesn’t always understand why a parent makes choices with which their child doesn’t agree). In His divine goodness, God gives us what we most need during these difficult times — His comfort, love, grace, and peace.
Third, while we don’t know why the Lord took your relative, there are some things we *do* know. We know that God is good.(Psalm 107:1). We know that God is love. (1 John 4:8). And we know that God hates death much, much more than we do. He is grieved by death even more than we are. How do we know that? We know it because God was willing to send His one and only Son to die on our behalf (including your relative’s) so that our stories wouldn’t end in death but in life — eternal life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). We also know God hates death because, as I mentioned earlier, Jesus wept at the grave of His friend, Lazarus, even though He knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Fourth, all who put their faith in Jesus will experience eternal life with Him. What this means is that while their bodies will expire, their spirits will join Him in Heaven. To put it differently, it means that they don’t ever really die. The moment they receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior they also receive life eternal. That is why the Apostle Paul writes that to be away from our earthly bodies is to be at home with Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:8). Every follower of Jesus has ultimately overcome death through Jesus, which is why Paul asks (rhetorically), “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”(1 Corinthians 15:55).
In explaining this reality to a child, I think it’s helpful to use an illustration: Imagine you’re scuba diving with friends. In order to survive under water, you need to put on your scuba gear — e.g., body suit, oxygen tank, mask, flippers, etc. But the moment you swim back to land, you don’t need your scuba gear anymore. So, you take it off and put on new gear (i.e, your clothes). Nothing about you changes except your covering — your gear. And none of your friends would freak out if they later followed you to the shore and only found your scuba gear, because they’d know that you — the real you — isn’t your scuba gear. The scuba gear was something that was covering the “real you” and enabling the “real you” to survive under water. So, they’d probably just shrug their shoulders and take care of the “scuba gear” you left behind.
Our earthly bodies are like “scuba gear.” God gave us our bodies as the “gear” we needed to dwell on the earth. But the “real us” isn’t our bodies — the “real us” are the spirits that are housed by our bodies. We often make the mistake of associating a person with that person’s body. But that’s like failing to recognize the difference between a person and his scuba gear. The two things are distinct. So, when a person “dies” it’s much like taking off “scuba gear.” They’re moving into a new reality (dry land) for which they need different “gear” (clothes). We mistakenly think of them as dead because we’re confused — we’ve come to associate them with their scuba gear. But they never were their scuba gear — they just used the gear to get around while they were on earth. Now God has given them different “gear” because they’re now living in a new reality, a new environment. They’re no less alive than they were when they were scuba diving. So, while we grieve the pain of being separated from them for a while, we do not think of them as dead because we know they’re still very much alive. They’ve just taken off their gear and moved.
Ultimately, we cry because we miss them, not because we believe they’re dead. So, we take care of (i.e., bury or cremate) the “gear” they’ve left behind, we grieve because we miss them, and we rejoice because we know they’ve conquered death and are with the Lord in Heaven.
Finally, I’d talk to them about Heaven so that they can find some peace and joy in the hope that your relative is doing much better now than ever before. The Bible says that Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in heaven. The verse you mentioned to your kids about there being many “rooms” in Heaven is also translated many “dwelling places” or “mansions.” (John 14:2). Even though much about Heaven remains shrouded in mystery, God has revealed to us some pretty exciting things about it. But even with what He has revealed, He still tells us that “no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:8-9).
In other words, Heaven is beautiful and glorious beyond anything we could possibly imagine. Human language can’t come close to accurately capturing its magnificence. But God, in His grace, has still given us a foretaste of what awaits. Here are just a few of things that Scripture tells us about Heaven:
- There is no death, mourning, crying, or pain in Heaven. (Revelation 21:4).
- There is no night in Heaven because the glory of God illuminates everything. (Revelation 22:5).
- All who put their faith in Jesus, will reign over Creation alongside Him. (Revelation 22:5).
- There’s a river of life that’s as bright as crystal that flows from the throne of God and through the heavenly Jerusalem. On either side of the river is the tree of life which yields 12 different kinds of fruit. (Revelation 22:1-5).
- The wall of the heavenly Jerusalem is made of jasper, and the city itself is made of pure gold — gold that’s as pure as glass. The city’s main street is also made of pure gold that’s as transparent as glass. The foundations of the city’s walls are made of all kinds of precious stones like sapphires, jasper, topaz, and amethysts. The city has twelve gates, each made of a single pearl. The city is laid out like a square and is about 1,400 miles long, 1,400 miles wide, and 1,400 miles high. The wall surrounding the city is about 200 feet thick. (Revelation 21:15-21).
- God’s throne is a throne of sapphire that’s encircled by a rainbow that looks like an emerald; flashes of lightning and peals of thunder come from the throne. Around the throne are four living creatures that are as mysterious as they are awesome. They each have four faces (each one has a face like a lion, another like a man, another like an ox, and another like an eagle). They each have six wings and are covered with eyes (even under their wings). They are truly awe-inspiring. (Revelation 4:1-8; Ezekiel 1).
- The saints in heaven shine with the glory of God. (Matthew 13:43).
- Heaven will have people from every nation, tribe and tongue. (Revelation 7:9).
- There are orders of angels in Heaven, too. For example, there are Seraphim, Cherubim (these are angels who guard sacred things — e.g, God placed Cherubim at the Garden of Eden to keep Man out of it after Adam sinned), messenger angels (like Gabriel), and warrior archangels like Michael. (Isaiah 6:2; Ezekiel 10:21, 41:18; Daniel 9:21-27; Luke 1:11-20; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Jude 9; Daniel 10:13, 21; Revelation 12:7).
Heaven is a place of unimaginable beauty, filled with the glory of God. Everyone there is full of life, full of joy, full of peace, and actively engaged in doing all kinds of amazing things that God has for them. A mentor and friend of mine wrote a great, Biblically-grounded book about Heaven. It’s called What the Bible Reveals About Heaven, by Daniel A. Brown, PhD. I recommend it if you want to read more about what the Bible says about heaven.