“Why did God take mommy to heaven?” asked Haley about the death of her mother due to a drug overdose. Her dad said that God needed mom in heaven to help him, and that Haley should feel happy that God chose mom. That didn’t make much sense to this young child, so she began asking other people for their opinions. I know what I was expected to tell her, but being asked questions without answers still leaves me uncomfortable.
Like the rest of us, Haley was trying to make some sense of a world where events often appear unfair, capricious and illogical. Similar questions come up frequently with kids during therapy. “Why did my parents get a divorce?” “Why did my uncle abuse me?” “Why do other kids make fun of me?” “Why did I get cancer?”
We all adopt some view of the world that allows us to function in spite of life’s many apparent injustices and erratic events. We may develop faith in an all knowing God, and trust that the world is developing according to some divine plan. Others affirm a nihilistic view that events transpire in a random manner without any real meaning. These existential questions are tough enough for adults to navigate, but how should you respond to kids?
- Encourage the conversation. Support your children when they come to you with their concerns. Let them know that their questions are important and that you will always be there to help them figure out the answers.
- Consider different points of view. Here’s the tough part. Children need to learn that unlike a math problem, not all questions have a single correct answer. This was a real issue with Haley, as she had an intuitive sense that something was wrong with the idea that God took her mom’s life to help Him in heaven. While I always encourage children to look to their parents for support, it was also important for Haley to understand, as she did already, that people have different points of view. I learned later in therapy that Haley had already found out that her mom had committed suicide, and thus lost trust in her dad since she felt he lied to her.
- Come up with an answer that makes sense to you. Children need to develop their own answers to these tough questions. We can give our own viewpoints, but we should encourage them to put their feelings and facts together in a way that makes sense for them.
- Go beyond the question. I work hard to help children not get stuck in agonizing over unanswerable questions. Sometimes it’s best to accept the unknown and unknowable, and instead focus on living a meaningful life that makes you proud of yourself and becomes a gift to those around you.