Talking about death

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My first experience of losing a close family member to death was in my early teens when my grandfather passed away. Because I attended boarding school, I missed his funeral. Some time later my grandmother also died. During her funeral, my young mind found the religious leader’s explanation of why humans die far from comforting. I did not fully comprehend why we die, where we go after death, and what future lies ahead for those who’ve died.

Losing a parent or a close relative to death may be a confusing time for a child. When a death happens in the family, should we tell our children our own personal beliefs concerning death? Should we tell them the scientific explanation of death and wait until they are older to choose their own religion and explanations of what happens after death? Or should we tell the child fairy tales that are told to children about death (even though we might not believe them ourselves). Is it a good idea to say nothing until the child starts asking questions?

I recently faced a situation where I had to console a teenager who’d just lost one of his parents. At first, I found myself not knowing what to say. One can’t explain death to someone without revealing one’s religious beliefs. How could I soothe his grief, which was still raw?

To complicate issues, my beliefs were different from his. How could I explain about death in a reassuring way – without unnecessarily compromising his beliefs or my own?

Leaning heavily on the teachings of my chosen faith, I explained to the young man that we all die because we are imperfect. I made it clear to him that his deceased mother was in a state of inactivity – it was as if she was in a deep sleep from which  she could not wake up for a long time. She could not experience pain or any emotions and was therefore unaware of what was happening around her. We discussed how there was a time in the future when the dead ones would be raised up again: resurrection. The young man understood that there was hope of seeing his mother again in the future.

As I closed my book, from where I’d read a few excerpts to him, I hoped I’d given him the needed comfort.

What’s the right thing to say to teens about the spiritual aspects of death?

Read more by Sipho Yanano

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