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 naivet. 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.
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