For example, last Monday I got to spend breakfast explaining to my 4 & 6 year old boys how mommy was going to go to the doctor because some stuff was broken inside. They needed to understand that mommy wasn’t sick, but she’d need to spend the night and we’d have to be extra nice to her for a few days when she got home because she’d be tired and just a little hurt when she came home. But then she’d be all right again.
Within the same conversation I had to explain to them that sometime that afternoon, our 12-year-old dog Dixie was going to go to see some doctors too–but she wouldn’t be back, because she was too sick to get better. They seemed to understand that if we let the doctors help her die that she wouldn’t hurt as much as if we let her die at home. After breakfast I was getting ready to leave and walked into my bedroom to see Grey (6) jump up as if caught doing something he shouldn’t. He looked solemn.
“What are you doing, Grey?”
“I was just giving Dixie some extra hugs and kisses in case I don’t get to see her later.”
That afternoon they made cards for her: “Dixie, we will miss you. We already gave you our goodbyes. Thanks for getting old.”
Grey & Penner probably would have enjoyed their 4 and 6 years with Dixie a lot less if once a week or twice a month I’d reminded them that, at some point, Dixie would die. I have known that Dixie would die since the day I picked her up at the “free puppies” house on the way home from work 12 years ago (“free puppies” is one of The Great Lies, by the way). But instead of teaching my kids about her death, I taught them how to love her. When death was upon us, I helped them process that. We’re not done, of course. I’m sure there are still tears to be shed from missing the fart monster that tears up all of our soccer balls. But with her death I think they’re finding a deeper appreciation of the love that they’ve always had for her, rather than a final realization of the thing they always dreaded coming.
I think in youth ministry we sometimes have a tendency to over-prepare kids for their own disasters. Instead of showing them how to pursue Christ-likeness and how to love life where they are, we go on about how they’ll eventually ruin their lives with credit, suffocate their futures with unwanted pregnancies, and abandon their faith when everything changes in college. I’m overstating it, obviously. We do serve a cautionary role among other responsibilities. But if our ministries build an implied, “See? I told you so” into the lives of our kids, all we’ve accomplished is to make them feel worse in already bad circumstances. Is there a better way that teaches them to live lives deepened in love for each other and as a byproduct helps them process and learn from “real life” when it hits? Would they understand better when bad things happen to good people if they’d learned to love a few people through those situations?
So how do you tread that line in your own ministry? How do you strike the balance between cautioner and supporter? When crisis complicates things for one of your group, do they feel like your ministry is one more thing that they have to deal with or do they feel it come alongside and sit with them?
And how long do you think it will be before my blind cat dies? I’m only asking because I’m anticipating 2 kids asking that question sooner than later. We’re not out of the woods yet.