child death story


The Childlike Spirit
by Johann Christoph Arnold
Bruderhof Grief Companion

As adults, we often seek answers to life's riddles by trying to analyze events and causes. Sometimes this works; more often it doesn't. In matters of illness and death especially, it seems that there is always an element of mystery - something that leaves us in need of more than our own explanations. This is not true of children, however, who tend to possess a greater tolerance for mystery. Even if they tend to fret over what we adults might see as "little things," they are generally far more accepting of life as it unfolds, and are not so bogged down by doubts, questions, and worries over the future. They are also more matter-of-fact about the things that adults fuss over, exaggerate, or over-interpret.

Cassie Bernall, a Colorado teen whose death made headlines after the infamous Columbine High School massacre of April 1999, is a case in point. Confronted by two armed classmates in her high school library with the question, "Do you believe in God?" she bravely answered, "Yes," and was immediately shot. Within days, the international press was proclaiming her a latter-day martyr, and symbol of courage and conviction. Meanwhile those closest to her, while they never belittled her bravery, maintained that she was really an average teen, with ordinary problems and imperfections and weaknesses. As a classmate told Cassie's mother afterward:

People can call Cassie a martyr, but they're off track if they think she was this righteous, holy person, and that all she did was read her Bible. Because she wasn't like that. She was just as real as anybody else. With all the publicity she's getting - the stories, the T-shirts, the web sites, the buttons, the pins - I think she'd be flipping out. She's probably up there in heaven rolling her eyes at it all and going oh-my-gosh, because she'd want to tell everyone who admires her so much that she wasn't really so different from anybody else.

There's another reason Cassie might roll her eyes - her childlike faith, which would have surely left her baffled in the face of all the fuss over the meaning of her "martyrdom." As her mother, Misty, recalls:

One day, a week or so before Cassie's death, we were sitting at the kitchen table, talking, and got onto the subject of death. I don't remember how. She said, "Mom, I'm not afraid to die, because I'd be in heaven." I told her I couldn't imagine her dying - that I couldn't bear the thought of living without her. She replied, "But Mom, you'd know I was in a better place. Wouldn't you be happy for me?"

In retrospect, Cassie's frank statements about the afterlife seem uncanny. At the same time, they have reassured Misty as she continues to grapple with the loss of her only daughter: "But Mom, you'd know I was in a better place."

Several years ago another family I know lost a child -this time to cancer. Mark John's death, too, shows how the childlike spirit can overcome the morbid gloom we so often associate with dying, and turn it into a redemptive experience. To quote from his parents' diary:

The doctors at Yale-New Haven proposed that Mark John, who was then three, be transferred to a hospital in New York City for rigorous chemotherapy along with some other new treatment still at the experimental stage. When we asked them how much it would help Mark John, they could only say that at best it might prolong his life two to eight months, and at the price of his becoming deathly sick. When pressed, they reluctantly admitted that he would suffer terribly; in fact, he could die from the treatment itself...

We decided that we would rather have our child at home, close to us, than in a hospital, even if he would live a little longer. It was an agonizing decision, but we knew that God alone has all our lives in his hand, and especially the life of our little boy.

Daily Mark John became weaker and weaker. Then he lost his sight in one eye. Would he be blind before Jesus came to take him? We longed so much that he might be spared that ordeal.

Once when he was lying on our bed between us, he asked us about the picture hanging on the wall opposite our bed - a painting of the Good Shepherd leaning over a cliff to rescue a lamb, with a bird of prey hovering over it. We knew a bird of prey was hovering over our little child too, but he was so unaware, so trusting. He grew thoughtful as he looked at the picture and asked us to tell him about it. We told him that Jesus was the Good Shepherd, and that we all are his lambs - also he. It was remarkable how he listened intently and seemed to understand...

On the last day he vomited blood; our doctor turned to us and said, "Soon." Then we sang a song that we had sung many times during the last days: "We shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death." When we came to the refrain, "Jesus himself shall be our leader," Mark John said distinctly, "Yes, yes, yes."

A little later, as we were bending over him, he suddenly said, "Laugh!"

"What, Mark John?"


"But why should we laugh, darling?"

"Because," was the short but emphatic answer. And then, while we were still trying to grasp it, he repeated, "Please, laugh!"

Then we said, "Good-bye, Mark John," and he said, "Bye-bye." We told him we would see him again soon, because for him in eternity it will be very soon. Then he lifted both his arms and stretched them up and pointed with both fingers toward heaven, and his eyes looked and saw - his blind eyes that couldn't see any longer on this earth, but already saw beyond our world - and called out, "Not two! One!" He repeated this two or three times. "Not two! One!" He saw two angels coming to fetch him, and we had always told him only about one.

Then he turned toward his mother and said distinctly and tenderly, "Mommy, Mommy." Then he said "Papa, Papa." It was as if he wanted to unite us very closely. And then, in that dear and characteristic way of his, nodding his head, he said, "Mark John, Mark John." It was as if he had heard Jesus calling his name, and was repeating it. We had never heard him say his own name like that before. Then, fighting for breath, he called out, "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy." Ellen talked to him softly and reassuringly...He was still breathing heavily but we could not feel his little heart any more. And then came the last precious breath and the agonizing sigh. Death had taken his body, but his soul was victorious and free. We called to our darling little boy, "Mark John, Mark John!" But he was gone.

As we look back on that night, we can see now that Mark John was slowly moving into another world. He went trustingly, even happily. It was as if we were standing before the gates to eternity, and we could take him that far, but then we would have to leave him. He would go in, and we would have to wait.

This is taken from Be Not Afraid, downloadable as a free e-book at or share your own story at

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child death story


child death story