Memory Eternal, A Teaching Unit on Bereavement (Lesson One: How Children Experience Death Around Them)

This module was created after our parish, Saint John the Wonderworker in Atlanta, Georgia, experienced the death of our beloved priest, Father Jacob Myers. We designed this to be adapted to any level but I taught it, along with a dear friend (Mr. Matt Nasrallah), to a Sunday School class of older elementary and middle school children ranging in age from 8-12. We taught it over six weeks leading up to Pascha.

It was especially challenging and healing for me to co-write and teach this to that particular class, because it had been my daughter’s class before she died of cancer at age 8, just two years before our pastor died. Because the children knew my daughter so well, I personalized the lessons and shared our family’s experiences with them.

We felt the children had experienced a lot of loss between the deaths of my daughter, Mary Evelyn, and of our priest, Father Jacob. By talking openly with the children about death, we hoped to help them heal and gain a right understanding of death. We shared these materials with their parents.

Lesson One: How Children Experience Death Around Them

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted….”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 King James Version)

Every spring, new plants grow, baby birds hatch, and animal babies are born. Life is renewed all around us. Plants and many animals, insects and birds grow throughout the summer, but in the fall, some of them begin to wither and die. Seasons are one way in which life and death surround us, and this helps children understand that death is part of our life in nature.

Many children have experienced the loss of a pet, or many pets. This is a great first discussion topic to introduce the module. In our family, we had fish die, a beloved sick old cat who said goodbye one night and then went off to the woods to die, a dog who seemed to understand more about his death than I did, a turtle who met an untimely death, and lastly a hamster who was killed by the cat but not before being lovingly rescued by my then six year old daughter, Mary Evelyn, who cried as she cradled his stiffening body in her little hands. We buried him and said prayers over the hamster’s grave before solemnly strewing flowers on it. When teaching this, you can share your own stories about pets who have died and how your family handled it before opening it up to the children.

  1. Have you ever had a pet that died? Tell us about your pet and what it was like. Did you have a funeral for your pet?

It is also a common experience for children to experience the loss of a grandparent. That opens the door for them to tell you how death has affected them personally. When I taught this, I was deeply saddened and surprised by how many of the children had experienced the death of someone close to them and how much they wanted to talk about it in that safe setting.

We closed the lesson by reminding them that Death has been overcome and showed an icon of the Resurrection.

Discussion questions:

  1. In what ways do we see death in nature?
  2. What hymn do we sing over and over on Pascha? How is that hymn shown in the icon of the Resurrection?
  3. Next Sunday, listen carefully in the liturgy and notice when the priest or the choir mention death, resurrection or heaven. In class, we’ll ask you to tell us three times that you heard them sung.

End with prayer.

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