I met my husband on a blind date. Sounds ordinary enough. But it wasn’t. Our mutual friend called me one day and said, “Sit down. I want you to meet someone. He’s a widower with three kids.” Ugh. And then he proceeded to tell me some of the awful details. Cancer. A four-year, hard-fought battle. Three beautiful kids and this strong man of great character left behind. I couldn’t comprehend a person my own age having gone through such a trauma. And what about the kids?
The gravity of what they had lost began to set in the very first time I met them. A picture of their mom and her obituary was framed in the entryway of their home. Her handiwork was everywhere. She had made the curtains in the kids’ rooms and hung the wallpaper. She had decorated every room. I looked through albums, and more albums, of the birthday parties she had thrown for them and the hairstyles she had fashioned for the girls. The Christmases, dance recitals, soccer games, baseball practices, and every other event—all of them captured her smiling face, loving touch, or playful sense of humor. Her handwritten recipe cards were in the kitchen; her coat was in the closet. But the warmth and security of her presence was most certainly gone. Now what?
One out of seven children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20. I’m certain that many of you have ministered to a child who faced the unimaginable—the death of a parent or sibling. If you haven’t yet, there is a high probability you will. The gravity of childhood loss is overwhelming. But it is no match for our God. What we have that is invaluable to a grieving child’s health, well-being, and future is this: knowledge of the unfailing goodness of God. That knowledge, consistently conveyed, will lead a child into a dramatic reversal of mindset and behavior. It will save him or her from faithlessness, bitterness, depression, fear, and delinquency.
“The loving kindness of God endures all day long” (Psalm 52:1).
“I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13).
There are several ways to minister to a grieving child. Plenty of literature has already been written on the subject, but most of it is secular in its approach. As ambassadors of Christ, equipped with the Word of God, we bring something entirely new and life giving to kids facing tragedy. Psychological approaches address the subject of loss by examining the thoughts, feelings, and stages of grief. In my experience, it is not as important for children to understand their grief as it is for them to know their Healer. The focus of all our lives, even when facing death, should be less inward and more upward.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted … to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2).
In fifth grade our oldest daughter was placed in a grief group at her public school. The school counselor was trying to facilitate some discussion by pointing out the kids’ body language and what it said about how they were feeling. Our daughter looked at him with fury and said, “Did your mom die?” When he replied, “No,” she said, “Then you don’t know anything about how I’m feeling.” Needless to say, she was voluntarily dismissed from the group.
Grieving kids often feel alone. They think no one understands what they’re going through. This gets magnified in their thoughts and sometimes manifests itself in a tornado of angry outbursts, tantrums, obstinacy, and other tempestuous behaviors. It was a few years after her encounter with the school counselor that our daughter heard a sermon about how God Himself had lost someone He loved. Jesus. His Son. She finally realized God was the One who knew exactly how she felt. Her heart softened. She decided she could believe in Him again.
This is so important. You may never know what it feels like to be the bereaved child, but that doesn’t mean you can’t minister to one. You know Our Savior Jesus. You know He died for us. You know Him through Scripture, and prayer, and worship, and time spent with Him. Your faith in the goodness of God matters to these kids. You can point them to the One you know, who sympathizes with all our weaknesses, who never leaves us or forsakes us, who knows exactly what we are going through, and promises to strengthen us and help us.
What ultimately leads children back, from despair into faith and life, is knowing God is good, He loves them, He is with them, and He has eternally good plans for them. So reveal Jesus to bereaved kids. Reveal His true heart of love for them.
Be prepared to answer the hard questions, even if they are never asked. Grieving children have many questions. Their souls are swarming with unrest. Inside they may be screaming, “Where is God? Why has this happened to me?” And because of their experiences, they will often conclude that God isn’t real … God doesn’t love me … God isn’t kind. These children want answers to some pretty sophisticated questions. Mine did. Why do people die? What will we do in heaven? Does God answer prayers? Be prepared. Read the Word. Pray. Ask God for wisdom. The maturity of our faith and hope in Jesus will navigate them through their dark valley. You may not be able to answer every question. Ultimately behind all of the questions, though, is a deep need to be reassured of God’s goodness. We have the love of Jesus, living inside of us, to give them that assurance.
A sorrowful child may not even be old enough to articulate the questions, doubts, and fears she has. Someone has to anticipate and answer even the unasked questions with the hope and comfort of God’s Word. I’ve found even the most fearful and dejected children will respond to God’s words of adoration for them when spoken again and again.
Practical ways to help kids who have lost a loved one.
- Tell your kids Bible stories about people who either lost loved ones or were trapped in very difficult circumstances. Show them how God healed and delivered them. Build their faith!
- Teach them about how death originated so they don’t think it was their fault that someone they loved died. Then tell them about the resurrection!
- Teach children how to pray and, if old enough, how to journal their prayers.
- Cultivate a lifestyle of praise and thanksgiving by practicing this with your kids.
- Affirm grieving children by recognizing their special talents and giftings. They need to know they are valuable.
- Create take-home materials that require the involvement of the grieving parent. Often there is an uncomfortable silence in the home. Healing happens as the parent re-engages in the spiritual development of the child.
- Memorize Scripture with grieving kids. The Word of God, planted in their hearts, will bear good fruit! (Mark 4:14-20)
- Teach on heaven. Be specific. There is wonderful detail in the Bible about our glorious, eternal future.
The emotions and behaviors that come with childhood grief are raw and rough. The challenge of ministering to a grieving child is, in many ways, a challenge to our faith and maturity in Christ. What will you do when you are called on to minister to one of these little ones? Your first thought might be, “Ugh!” Mine was. But I hope your next thought, and every one thereafter, will be …
Jesus, You promise to heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds. You will comfort and console all who mourn. You give beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Secure these little ones in Your goodness and love. Make them strong oaks, for Your glory’s sake. Here I am Lord. Use me.