Grieving children want and need a church community that is capably equipped to minister to them when they are hurting. For many within the church, the question is how can this be done successfully? Hearing the personal reflections of 24 young adults who had experienced childhood grief provided a wealth of information that can be incorporated into numerous church communities when focused attention to this need is evident.
The participant’s family, the church community, as well as close personal friends were the three primary sources that provided helpful assistance during their grieving experiences. For this study the family was inclusive of not only blood relations (parents, siblings, grandparents), but close personal family friends who spent an extended time with the child prior to and following the loss incident. The church was not chiefly a specific congregation, but any individual who had a vibrant relationship with Christ and chose to live out their faith through action. Although it is important to realize that specific church bodies are a vital area in which assistance can be gained, this study revealed it is truly the individual believer who interacts the most with a grieving child. The last category, friends, appeared to be more as it related to the family as a whole than to the child’s personal friends. It became evident to the participants that their peers were very often ill-equipped to understand and/or help them deal with the chaos associated with grief.
Josh: They (friends) probably don’t understand because they have not gone through it. That is not in a harsh way; it’s just how it is. They were real skeptical to talk to me because they were wondering if I was fragile or real emotional. They didn’t know what to do really … everyone was on tiptoes walking around me.
This reflection notes the importance of not only equipping adult believers but equipping children as well in understanding and assisting childhood grievers.
Several participants identified helpful assistance that was given to them and their families immediately after the death, as well as months or years later. Each situation is different, but the statements below demonstrate the participants’ views in regards to their experience:
Bekka: … there was like a pastor … actually sat down and talked with me, my brother, and my two cousins about it … He asked us what we thought heaven was.
Cayson: … I did let them (boys’ group at church) know and they prayed for me … I trusted the leaders.
Joy: … he (her pastor) and his wife helped me understand … Once they explained everything it made it easier to accept … We talked about it and stuff … They explained death, that it happens and sometimes it is a good thing.
Kayla: The next day after my granny died, after school, my pastor’s wife sat down with me and talked to me. We talked about Granny and how it is okay to cry, but to remember we are crying for ourselves not for her. These types of incidences (with her) were often repeated over the next couple of months … My school counselor (a Christian who went to another church in the community) suggested I write my granny a letter. This letter is now laminated and in a secret place close to my granny’s grave. This helped me let go.
Paul: For me I liked people asking me how I was doing, but I’m not a big talker.
Ruth: Our church was wonderful. They cooked for us … We had so many flowers from family, friends, and church members … everyone was just really comforting even though he (papa) did not live where we lived.
Zoey: I think one of my school teachers gave me a teddy bear. I know that seems silly, but it kinda reminded me of my grandmother for some reason. It was comforting at the time. Just knowing someone cared enough to give me that, I guess.
Haley: My teachers (a Christian public school educator) would leave notes in my locker. That was nice. (They said) “We are thinking of you so if you need to talk.”
Abigail: Our church let me read a poem a year after Dad died; that helped. I felt like I was honoring my dad … My teacher (Christian public school educator) always gave me a card at Father’s Day or Thanksgiving from her. (Father died suddenly on Thanksgiving.)
Ruth: I think I just truly trusted her (her 4th grade teacher who was a Christian) because she was real. I didn’t for a second believe she didn’t care. She told me, “You know you can always come and talk to me.” I think just having her there and continually reminding me she was an ear to listen or a shoulder to cry on. I knew she was serious. I knew that she meant what she said more than anyone else.
Colby: I went through two different counselors (one was a Christian) that helped me a lot.
Luke: The fact that they (people from their church) were at the funeral was more than some would do. They didn’t even know him, but were just there for us.
These are just a few of the concrete examples offered by the participants about their experience as a childhood griever. The study afforded each participant the opportunity to note suggestions they believed would be beneficial for assisting childhood grievers while they are hurting. It is important to note that the suggestions primarily revolved around the idea that children want to be informed, involved and desperately need someone besides their parents whom they can openly talk to. Very often the participants kept things inside in order to prevent causing additional pain. As a result, they did not feel as though they sufficiently dealt with the loss until years later.
Cayson: I did not allow myself to go completely through the grieving process. I was able to cover it up and not fully express it … I just know it gets harder, harder and harder as death happens … you need to work through those things when it happens.
In order for future childhood grievers to be afforded the opportunity to successfully “work through those things”, knowing and implementing some, if not all, of the suggestions offered is essential. These will not only pertain to the assistance to be given immediately after the death, but months and years later as well.
- Focus not only on the immediate family or the adults, but everyone who may be grieving.
- Personally get to know the children within your church community so that when a grieving experience does occur, you can be someone they feel they can honestly communicate with.
- Recruit someone on staff or within the church community who understands children and childhood grief. The basic requirement for ministry in this case is being willing to spend uninterrupted time with the griever.
- Continually seek ways to let the griever know you are available and care. This needs to be communicated in a way so that the griever does not feel overwhelmed. Some suggestions were: send an e-mail, text, call, periodically speak to them in person, and/or write them a note or send a card.
As helpful as this advice is, there were additional concrete ideas on what can be incorporated into ministry that focuses on grieving children. The majority of these suggestions can be done within a specific church congregation and/or by one individual who the child may already know personally.
- From the pulpit or within the classroom setting, teach on death, the grieving process and the different ways in which hurt can be positively expressed (ex. crying is okay). Never assume children or adults understand what is occurring or how they are feeling.
- Provide times in which the griever can write down or draw what they are experiencing, memories of the deceased, or any other thoughts/emotions they may be facing following the death.
- Love those who are grieving; listen, bake meals, and encourage.
- Provide seminars or teacher training opportunities within the church context to learn about grief. In these teaching times give scenarios to be worked through in a group setting alleviating the fear often associated with the unknown.
- Provide a mentoring program composed of past childhood grievers who can help others as they are undergoing the same pain.
- Make sure lines of communication between parents and/or guardians of children within the church are open. This will hopefully allow any changes within the life of the child to be shared, ensuring that the assistance offered can be effective.
- Use Bible stories as well as appropriate children’s movies and books as teaching tools on grief in a group setting. Participants noted it is often easier to talk about troublesome topics when they are introduced as being informative rather than reactive to a particular situation.
- Have family nights so that leaders and teachers associated with the church can build relationships with the congregation. This is especially important for large churches with a congregational size of over 200 weekly attendees.
- Make every effort to go to school and community activities. Send a card or call to inform the child how much you enjoyed seeing them at that time.
- Provide opportunities through the church for grieving children to minister to others in memory of the deceased. Some ideas are: baking cookies for soldiers, sing Christmas carols to shut-ins, visit nursing homes, and/or put flowers in a planter to be enjoyed by the church congregation.
- Create a specific ministry which ministers to families who are grieving. Focus on extended interactions to visibly show the church community is there for those who are hurting.
It is important to note that this list is not exclusive. The foundational thought for each suggestion was the importance of remembering children are active participants within the family unit who grieve. They want to be informed, involved and loved both immediately after, as well as months following the death of their loved one. When this occurs, each subsequent memory of the loss, as well as additional grieving experiences, will be easier to face.