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God Is Not a Plumber – Talking to Kids About Death

Photo Credit: Creative Commons – Allen_Air_Conditioning

The topic of death and grieving have been covered several times on this blog, because those are realities that all of us will face during this life.

I’m thrilled to share with you this guest post from a writing friend of mine, Michelle Johnson.

As a blogger Michelle has a keen interest and ability in addressing grief, bringing her to write for and work with Adelaide funeral homes and various publications dealing with death, funerals and the grieving process.

Here’s her guest post:

There are limitless metaphors you can apply to God’s state of employment, and even several literal ones as well (speaking to the physical manifestation of God): potter, wonderful counselor, prince of peace, lowly carpenter, fisher of men, evangelist, farmer, arguably unsuccessful gardener, and on and on. Still, one job you don’t hear of God is plumber.

While I’m sure you could easily imagine some figurative plumbing job for our divine jack-of-all trades, the fact is that often parents use this God-employment for the curious reason of teaching children about death.

Consider the cliché moment of most children’s first brush with death: the death of the practically proverbial pet goldfish. As parents we often feel the need to shelter our kids from pain, to hide potentially harmful or even just overtly complex issues from them so that they don’t have to be sad about losing Goldie.

In this analogy, whether we believe in an animal heaven or not, parents typically default to the eulogy of “he’s gone to fish heaven,” and then flush the thing and walk away, thinking we’ve managed to dope the child into thinking death is as simple and painless as discarding waste.

Why God Is Not a Plumber

So what’s wrong with this approach? Depending on the kid, possibly nothing. However, most children’s ideas of death can become distilled to factless, fantastical notions of an important part of life.

As Christian parents, we believe that God and dying are inextricably linked, that there is a clear heaven and a clear hell, that belief in God and following him are essential to the end results of death beyond the grave – or even the toilet bowl.

To reduce death to a flush and an automatic promise of heaven afterward is to cheat the child of essential understanding that will one day get rocked when he or she experiences it again in a more mature age.

It is the parent’s responsibility to ensure that children are prepared for the harsh truths of life – and the afterlife – and saving that pain and realization for them to figure out in a “realer” time of grief can be even more harmful and confusing than explaining the truth of the matter before you think they’re ready.

Nearly any parent can tell you that children are far more perceptive than we give them credit for.

How to Have the Talk

So when you’re faced with the fish conversation, what exactly should you do?

It may seem ridiculous to your reality-hardened cognizance, but level with them in a real way with the things they do understand. For instance, if Goldie does die and your child finds him, don’t take the easy way out and say he’s just sleeping and that you have to flush him down the toilet so he can swim with his friends.

Be forward and honest. Let you child know that the fish isn’t alive anymore. Depending on their age, most children don’t really know what that means, so you have to explain the various features of death, that he stopped breathing, that he stopped moving and eating, that he will never do those things again.

This idea of “never” is a strange one, and we forget as adults what it’s like to not understand that something that dies will never do things again. Children are impossibly optimistic, meaning they don’t want to think that things they like will go away, therefore they will believe that the upside-down fish in the bowl will one day pull a Lazarus and swim again simply because they hope it will happen.

Other than the completely non-spoiled children out there, children take a long time to realize that things that are hoped for don not always come true.

As for the Afterlife

The afterlife bit can be tricky, depending on your beliefs on animal heaven and hell. Still, this is a great opportunity to really apply the notion of heaven and hell and right and wrong living.

If your child asks, after you’ve successfully explained the ritualistic goldfish burial practices, if Goldie is going to fish heaven, ask your child what he or she thinks to get a notion of their understanding.

It may seem crazy, but really consider talking about whether it was a good fish or a bad fish. This is your chance to explain that not everyone goes to a good place after they die – you can still always save the complicated specifics of that for later.

And heck, you can even ask if Goldie ever invited Jesus into his heart if you think you’re ready to go there. ;-)

Question: How have you addressed the topic of death with your kids?

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  1. Some great points. I don’t think I could go so far as to talk to my kids about whether their fish asked Jesus into their heart or if it was a good fish or bad fish I guess because I cringe every time I hear people whittle down Christianity to “Well I’m a good person”. But I do like your main point, kids need us to be honest with them. I once had a friend who would not tell her child that Jesus died on the cross because the story was so horrific. Yes, there is a degree on how much we reveal and at what age we tell them, but kids do need to know(on some level) that death is part of this life. Nice thoughts.

  2. dan2188 says:

    all thing’s new.past,present and furture dan g sparrow

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