Most of us like to think of children as lighthearted, happy-go-lucky, without a care in the world. Yet, we know that many children will experience the death of a loved one. When a death occurs it turns a child’s world upside down. It is times like these that children’s pastors and church leaders need to be prepared with how to help the parents help the child. At other times when a parent is deep in grief, a minister may be asked to speak with the child directly. In extreme situations, such as a sudden death, the pastor may be the one who tells the child about the death of the loved one. It is important to understand the many issues involved when ministering to grieving children.
While there are similarities in grief, different types of death may need to be dealt with differently and individually.
Talking to a child about a parent dying suddenly in a car accident will be different from talking about a parent dying from a long terminal illness. For instance, a child who has lost a parent to a long-term illness such as cancer has known the loved one was suffering. Talking to the child about how the parent is no longer suffering will help the child accept the death. However, for a child who has lost a loved one suddenly, the conversation will need to be carefully crafted. In a general way, explain that something tragic has happened. Give the details: “There was a car wreck, and your dad was in one of the cars involved in the wreck.” State the truth: “Your dad was rushed to the hospital, but his body wasn’t able to cope with the injuries. He died a few minutes ago.”
Children need clear explanations that are short, accurate, and presented lovingly.
How churches and church leaders minister to children during a time of grieving can impact children into their adult years. It might very well affect their long-term relationship with the heavenly Father.
Several years ago a dad from Tulsa, OK, shared the following story with me.
“My son is twelve years old right now, but his mom died when he was six years old. At the time my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we faithfully attended our church. Shortly after my wife passed away, my son didn’t want anything to do with God or church. He was adamant. He cried every time we went to church. He refused to talk about God or pray or even let me pray over him or with him.
“Last summer I sent him to church camp, and a youth from our church figured out what the problem was. When his mother died his lovely Sunday morning Bible study teacher said to him, ‘God took your mother because He needed her.’ Now, while she didn’t say God needed his mother more than he did, that is the impression my son was left with regarding her death. My son was angry with God. To top it off, he felt guilty for being angry at God.”
This dad went on to explain that once they got it straightened out that God didn’t take his mom out of desperation for her company, his son wept for the first time since his mother’s death. He now loves going to church. He loves the Lord; he talks to God every day.
When talking to children about the death of a loved one, there are a few things to consider in helping them cope with the loss. Here are three major issues to keep in mind.
- Find out what the child knows or understands about the situation.All children have interacted in some way with death. It could be the loss of a pet, a goldfish, or a bug they found on the sidewalk or even in movies or TV shows. Many don’t understand the finality of death, especially the death of someone close to them such as a parent, sibling, grandparent, teacher, or friend.Younger children think in literal terms. When a friend at our church passed away several years ago, one of the moms was talking to her five-year-old son about Mr. Lou’s death. She asked him if he understood that their friend had died. Her son said, “Uh-huh, and he’s in heaven now. But how is he going to walk in heaven without any legs?”
Confused, she asked what he meant. He replied, “You know, like Aunt Kay. When she was in that box, she didn’t have any legs.”
When his Aunt Kay died, he went to the funeral home with the family. Since all he saw in the casket was the upper part of the body, he assumed when people die and go to heaven, they do so without legs.
When my husband was dying of cancer, I was explaining to a first-grade friend about how sick he was and that the doctors had told us he was going to die. I asked if she knew what happened when someone died. She assured me she did and then explained it this way: “When somebody dies their bones go in the ground and their skin goes to heaven!”
- Understand how different ages respond to death.It is important to understand how children at different ages might respond to the death of a loved one. In the article Helping Children Cope with Grief, Jeanine Bozeman gives the following descriptions:
- Infants and toddlers express their pain with sadness, crying, difficulty sleeping or eating, or clinging behavior.
- Children two to seven years of age may believe they caused the death. Other emotional responses may be regression, lack of feeling, explosive emotions, fear, acting-out behavior, guilt, and sadness. Children at this age need constant reassurance and repeated explanations in order to make sense of the situation.
- By seven to eight years of age, children know that death is irreversible, inevitable, and universal.
- How children express their grief is influenced by several factors.Children, like adults, will express their grief in different ways. It’s important to understand the factors that may influence how they grieve. The National Centre for Childhood Grief lists the following:
- The nature of the loss
- The manner in which the loss occurs
- The child’s previous relationship with the lost person
- The child’s previous life experiences with loss
- The child’s emotional health
Other influences that affect a child’s grief:
- The reactions of the family surrounding the child
- The family support system, including church and school
- Family stress levels
- Family belief systems about children and grieving. “He’s too young to understand.”
Tips for talking to children about their grief
- Tell them in the right place. First of all, find a place that is familiar and comfortable for the child. More than likely it will be the child’s home or at least a place where the child has spent time with the loved one.
- Tell them sooner rather than later. It’s important to talk to the child as soon after the death as possible. For elementary-age children and older, talk to them before word gets out that someone has died. Keep in mind that with social media, news travels extremely fast.
- Tell them the truth. Always tell children the truth on their developmental level. Find out what a child knows by asking the child—not the parent or other relatives. Children are pretty good at hiding how they really feel out of concern for others. Or they try to be strong for everyone else. So their parents and relatives may not know.
- Use simple and honest explanations. “Your mom’s body quit working.” (long-term illness such as cancer)
- Give suitable but not detailed information. “Your daddy had an illness that messed up his brain and caused him to not think clearly.” (suicide)
- Address the child’s worries. Some children will worry that they will forget what their grandparent looked like. Or they worry that they caused their loved one to die because they didn’t do something they thought they should have done. Assure them you will make sure they have pictures of their loved one. Tell them they did not cause their loved one to die.
- Answer their questions and address their fears. Some children will wonder if their loved one was in pain when he or she died. Or they will be confused about various medical procedures that were involved, such as the use of a feeding tube. Assure children that you will answer all of their questions the best you can. If you don’t know the answer, tell them so, or say you will find out and get back to them.
Common questions children ask about grief
Here are some questions for which most children need answers. Unfortunately many children don’t know they have people they can approach. This is where church leaders, children’s ministers, and children’s leaders can be prepared to answer these thought-provoking questions. You can turn these questions around and use them to prompt discussion with the child.
- Is my dad (or mom) going to die too?
Your mom had a disease called cancer. Cancer is not contagious. Your dad doesn’t have cancer, and he plans on being with you for a long, long time. If anything does happen to him, he has asked _______ to take care of you to make sure you are okay.
- Where’s Daddy (or Mommy)? And when is he coming home again?
Daddy won’t be coming home again. (If the loved one was a Christian, you can tell children their daddy is in heaven. If you don’t know, tell them their daddy’s body quit working and he won’t be coming home again but that you will help them remember their parent.)
- When is my brother coming home?
He is not coming home. I know you are missing your brother. It’s okay to feel sad.
- How can people be laughing and talking after my mom’s funeral?
It is difficult when you are sad and missing your mom to hear other people laugh. Many people cope with their sadness by remembering the funny things their loved one did. They relieve their sadness by concentrating on the joyful memories.
- Am I going to die too?
(If a child asks this question, he typically isn’t asking whether he will ever die, he’s asking if he will die soon.) No, you are not going to die. You are strong, and we are going to make sure you stay healthy so you won’t die.
Advice to share with parents
- Encourage the family to keep the child’s routines in place.
- Create memory books, boxes, or other ways the child can use to remember the loved one.
- Assure the child he is not responsible for the death of his loved one.
- Let the child know he isn’t going to die also because he touched Grandpa before he died.
- Keep the lines of communication open for the next many months. It takes children time to grieve. Provide that safe place children need to express themselves.
- Help the parent(s) realize that children will take breaks in their grieving. They will play and be fine one day and then crying the next. You might say children grieve intermittently, as do some adults.
- Be empathic and understanding if the child’s behavior changes during the grieving period.
Even children who respond well need help
Many of us are rightfully concerned when a child acts out or withdraws after the death of a loved one. We tend to celebrate the child who responds by taking on additional responsibilities around the house or not being emotional, or who, after the death of a parent, acts like the man or woman of the house. But as GriefShare expert Brad Hambrick1 points out, children who respond this way often don’t get the care they need.
“When children go through grief, there’s often one of three experiences that they’ll have. They can act out. They can withdraw, or they become miniature adults who kind of care for things going on. If we ask which of those is least healthy, it’s the child who becomes the miniature adult. Because when the child acts out, the adults in their life are going to move toward them and care for them. When the child withdraws, the adults again are going to come toward them and care for them. When the child acts like a miniature adult, too often the child is going to be praised and affirmed. Then at some point later, they’re going to process the emotions of this experience. When people around them don’t understand what’s going on, the child doesn’t understand why they are upset and experiencing this, and then at that point, they may even get punished for what’s going on.”
Grief doesn’t need to be harmful when people surrounding the child know and understand all of the issues with children and grief. Church leaders can gently surround the family and be of assistance throughout the grieving period.
Children need the church family to surround them at the time of death. They will also need the church family to be there for them for the long term. As a child ages and moves into a different developmental level, he or she may reprocess the grief. For example, the little girl without a mother might need a loving female to take her under her wing and mentor her as she grows into her teenage years and as she wishes her mom were alive to be there during this time.
Don’t forget the children
Many times during the loss of a loved one, children are the forgotten ones. It’s important to remember children have feelings too. They need as much loving concern as their parent(s).
How have you ministered long-term to the children in your midst who have experienced the loss of a loved one?
- Church Initiative interview with Brad Hambrick, March 2013.