Talking with children about Jesus' death

The season of Lent and Easter can pose some challenges to Catholic parents who wonder how much they should say to their children about Jesus’ death. What do they understand, and how much is too much when discussing Jesus’ suffering and death?

Death is an abstract concept, and children are concrete thinkers, so kids are often not fully able to comprehend death until the teenage years, when they begin to think more hypothetically and are able to deal with the abstract more capably. However, there are some concrete aspects to death, which children sometimes experience in the loss of a pet or perhaps even a family member. For example, they formerly saw and spent time with this lost pet or family member, and now they do not. They might see the lifeless body of a pet or family member and notice that death looks like sleep, and this might lead them to imagine that death is like a sleep from which one doesn’t wake up. This can be a scary thought for some children, who don’t want to go to sleep for fear they themselves won’t awaken.

For younger children

Preschool children often see death as potentially reversible — for example, they might hear that Grandpa has died but also think he will come back for Christmas. They often engage in magical and egocentric thinking, and may think someone died because the child was angry at him or her, or that they are at fault in some other way.

During the elementary school years, children begin to understand the permanence of death, but still may feel guilt over a pet’s or relative’s death. These children are very curious about death and may ask questions that seem morbid or insensitive. It’s important to understand they are seeking information. Try to answer their questions as appropriately and thoroughly as possible.

Knowing all this, what are we to tell children about the Christ story? Jesus’ death and resurrection is an integral part of our faith, and so we need to share these events with children, who are also members of our Christian community. For preschool and younger elementary-aged children, it is sufficient to say:
“Even though Jesus was very kind and good, there were some people who didn’t like Him. They were mean and hurt Jesus, and He died. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because Jesus was God’s Son, He could even beat death. He came back and saw His friends again before going to His Father in heaven.”

Too many details about Jesus’ suffering can be overwhelming and scary for children this age, and we don’t want them to become overly focused on these details. Rather, we want them to know Jesus as a loving, and powerful, friend, who is also God.

As children grow

Older children and teens can handle a little more information about the Good Friday story, because they are better able to comprehend the context. Stations of the Cross and similar depictions of Jesus’ suffering are more appropriate for this age group, particularly if we can relate Jesus’ own suffering back to our everyday lives. It’s important that children know that doing good sometimes involves suffering. Things don’t automatically go well for us all the time because we are good people, but God is with us and understands suffering because He became a human being who suffered, too. Also, the resurrection story teaches us that, with God, there is an Easter Sunday for every Good Friday. Suffering and death are not the end of the story, but rather the transition to new life.