Commentary: What do we say when a child asks what it’s like to die?


When we visited our eldest daughter Paula in pediatric residency at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, she was working with “bald-headed children” suffering from cancer.  I enquired how she was handling such a heart-rending sight.  She cited this top-rated hospital’s most encouraging success rate.  Of course, children were still dying, and they and their parents had to come to terms with that.  Although I love answering questions, I would hate to be a parent confronted by a dying child who asks:  “What is it like to die?”

I would like to share a testimony and a poem as my answer.  I am writing as a pastor and a father who has never forgotten how scared he once was of losing Paul when she was just a week old.  Paula had been born just across the Ohio River in St. Elizabeth Hospital,  Covington, Kentucky.  We were living just thirty minutes south when our newborn, brown-eyed daughter wouldn’t, just wouldn’t, wake up.  We rushed to St. Elizabeth Hospital where they were able to awaken her.  The pediatrician in charge explained that Paula was a candidate for SIDS, otherwise known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome which had claimed this physician’s own baby.

Catherine Marshall once wrote in her provocative book Beyond Our Selves, “I vividly recall my first encounter with suffering (when her) father was called to the local hospital to minister to a woman dying of first  degree burns over most of her body (after) a stove exploded” (p. 33).  That began her struggle to understand why God allowed such evil things to happen.  She ended up visiting a lady friend named MacDonald when she “found herself spilling out (her) inner rebellion against a God who permitted suffering and evil when He had the power to stop it.”  Mrs. MacDonald shared with her about how her “only son Kenneth had died of diabetes as a teenager” – just a few month before insulin had been discovered which may well have saved his life.  She explained how she could have “railed bitterly against God for allowing Kenneth’s death.”  She admitted that she had no “complete answer to that,” but she experienced “so many examples of God’s tender father-love” during his long illness.  And when Kenneth “suspected he was going to die and asked (her), “Mother, what is it like to die?  Mother, does it hurt?” She asked God to help her answer her son.  He did. 

Catherine Marshall records Mrs. MacDonald’s words:  “God did tell me.  Only He could have given me the answer to the hardest question that a mother can ever be asked.  I knew – just knew how to explain death to him.  ‘Kenneth,’ I remember saying, ‘you know how when you were a tiny boy, you used to play so hard all day that when night came, you would be too tired to undress – so you would tumble into Mother’s bed and fall asleep?  That was not your bed.  It was not where you belonged.  And you would only stay there a little while.  In the morning – to your surprise – you would wake up and find yourself in your own bed in your own room.  You were there because someone had loved you and had taken care of you.  Your father had come – with his great strong arms – and carried you away.’  So I told Kenneth that death is like that.  We just wake up some morning to find ourselves in another room -  our own room, where we belong.  We shall be there, because God loves us even more than our human fathers and takes care of us just as tenderly.”

Mrs. MacDonald went on to say:  “Kenneth never had any fear of dying after that.”  Catherine Marshall adds:  “There was the look of profound peace on my friend’s face as she spoke” (pp. 35-37).

A poem-answer to our question, written by Henry Van Dyke, is entitled

Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore.  A ship, at my side,

Spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts

For the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty and strength.

I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck

Of white cloud just where the sea and skey come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is goine.”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight.  That is all.  She is just as large in mast,

Hull and spar as she was when she left my side.

And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me – not in her.

And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”

There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices

Ready to take up the glad shout, “Here, she comes!”

And that is dying …

As the Apostle Paul said so well in II Cor. 5:8:, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”

Paul R. Baxter is a Bible scholar, mission strategist for Georgia's Pine Mountain Baptist Association, and a retired pastor.