As children encounter illness, loss and grief -- whether their own or someone close to them -- they seek to understand those events and to make sense of their experiences. This inevitably is a spiritual process as they turn to their beliefs, faith narratives, rituals and practices. They may not yet have the cognitive capacity to reach conclusions, yet they yearn for an explanation of events that are sometimes difficult, if not impossible, for even adults to answer. Their questions may show innocence and naiveté. For example, when her maternal grandmother died, my 3-year-old granddaughter took comfort from the belief that even though her grandmother was no longer physically present on earth, she would watch over her from heaven. However, this led to a very practical concern: Would her grandmother be able to see her on the toilet -- a potent issue as she was becoming toilet trained? We reassured her that her Grandma would not look at her in these very private moments.
Children as young as 2 or 3 years old are trying to make sense of their world, and inevitably they are encountering their spirituality. Illness, grief and loss are often part of their worlds as well, so their spiritual development helps shape how they grapple with issues for which they want a concrete explanation. Often it is these questions -- Why did grandma have to die? Why is there illness? What happens to you after you die? -- that spur a child's interest in spiritual questions and explanations.
In his classic work, The Spiritual Life of Children, Dr. Robert Coles studied the ways that children used their spirituality to reflect on these questions. Coles was trained as a psychiatrist by Erich Lindemann, famous for his initial work on grief. As Coles worked in the 1950s with healthy children who had been stricken by polio, he was instructed by Lindemann to listen carefully to the ways that child's spirituality helped him or her adapt to this encounter with illness and mortality. Coles found that their spiritual stories, whether from the Bible or the Quran, helped them look not only upward but inward.
Coles moved away from the stage theories of spiritual development so prevalent in the literature at that point. Such theories stressed what children are capable of understanding at different levels at given ages. Coles shifted the paradigm by emphasizing that faith a process is not just what the child can know but what the child is trying to understand.
Coles employs a useful metaphor. Children, Coles claims, are "spiritual pilgrims or pioneers." By that, Coles means that children are trying to make sense of their world without the cognitive-spiritual maps that adults possess. Their sense-making is a spiritual work in progress -- a continued exploration in a territory they do not fully know or understand.
In that quest, Coles found, children often attempt to apply the broad understandings that have been conveyed to them within their spiritual traditions. Children raised in the Christian tradition, for example, often reflected on the incarnation, taking comfort from the reality that Jesus really knew what it was like to struggle with childhood. To Islamic children, surrendering to the will of Allah was a major theme, while Jewish children looked to the moral precepts of their faith to guide them through life.
Coles' findings reaffirm two important lessons for the adults present in a child's life when that child is trying to make sense of illness, grief and loss. The first is to respect the process and engage in dialog with the questioning child. The child's questions should be taken seriously. This is an excellent opportunity for parents and guardians to share the ways that their own spiritual beliefs help them deal with the same issues that are encountered throughout the life cycle.
One parent, for example, was questioned by her 6-year-old son on her own grief. If grandpa is in happy in heaven, why do you cry whenever you talk about him? Her response was honest, simple, appropriate and reassuring as the child tried to make sense of both his faith and feelings. She told him: I do believe that grandpa is in heaven. It comforts and helps me to know that he is with God and no longer in pain. I just miss him so much.
Everyone has some set of spiritual beliefs even if they do not accept theism, or the practice of incorporating a belief in a higher power or God. It is important to share those spiritual beliefs with your child as well. For example, a parent might not believe in heaven, reincarnation or any form of afterlife, but that parent may still take comfort in the memories that he or she has of a person or find solace in a sense of pride based in the legacy of a deceased individual. Such memories and legacies can be remembered and celebrated.
It is also important to take care in presenting romantic explanations rooted in spirituality to a child, because children often interpret such stories literally. I once counseled a 7-year old boy who was acting out after the death of his friend -- a death due to a car accident that this boy witnessed. He had been told that his friend was good and that God wanted him to be angel in heaven. This surviving child wanted to make it clear to the Deity that he would not be good material for any prospective angel. The romantic stories we may weave may do more harm than good. It is best to simply and honestly share your own spirituality with a questioning child.
This post is adapted from Living with Grief®: Spirituality and End-of-Life Care, available from the Hospice Foundation of America's bookstore. This book is a companion piece to the Spirituality and End-of-Life Care educational program.
Hospice Foundation of America is dedicated to helping the millions of Americans each year who cope with terminal illness, death and grief. Our website serves as a well-regarded resource for information end-of-life care and grief.