Walking with children as they grieve the death of a loved one is really hard. How do you approach the subject? What do you say? What do you do? Will talking about the one who is gone make things worse? All these questions rattle around in our mind as we do our best to love the precious little ones in our lives in the wake of losing a loved one. Walking through grief with young children is actually a beautiful thing. The innocence of a child’s love and sadness can have a calming cathartic effect on adults as well. Here are 10 ways that you can walk through grief with a little one.
1. Don’t Sanitize Death
Death is not God’s desire for us. Even when life has been a struggle and death feels like a welcome reprieve from pain and suffering–death is still the enemy. Children know this intuitively–the one they love isn’t here any more. Don’t try to explain that pain away. Name it. Own it with your little one. It’s okay to say death hurts and I’m sad too. Don’t be afraid of your child’s emotions. Assure them that it is okay to be sad and don’t rush them towards happiness and laughter.
2. Watch Your Metaphors
Often, out of fear of making things worse, we use coded language to talk about death. There are all kinds of ways we do this, but one of the most common is equating death to sleeping. Even Paul does it in the New Testament. Adults can conceptually grasp this. Children, most of the time, can not. I know children who were comforted with the “sleep” metaphor and became terrified of bedtime as a result. Straight talk with Kids is important. Don’t try to sugar coat things. Be compassionate. But be real.
3. You Won’t Make it Worse
There is a fear that, in the aftermath of loss, bringing up the name of the loved one will cause extra hardship upon children (this one goes for adults too). Lean into this fear. The truth is, bringing up the name of grandma and providing safe space to talk about her love and impact doesn’t cause more hurt. It brings fond feelings of love and memory. Sure, it might make everyone sad for a moment. But, often times ignoring the pain and glossing over the blatant absence is far more troublesome. Yes, there are some boneheaded things that you can say that may make things worse. But, unlikely. The pain resonates from the void, not from you pointing out the void. Remembering and telling stories is one of the best ways to process pain and celebrate the legacy left behind.
4. Use Scripture
The truth is that Jesus gives us lots of promises regarding death and His provision through the Cross and Empty Tomb. But, if you are not a theologian–don’t become one. Often times well meaning words of comfort lead to challenging questions and non-biblical teachings. One popular one is, “Grandpa is up in Heaven looking down on you.” I get the sentiment. But we need to be careful. First, while scripture is pretty clear that relationships will still matter when we are joined with Him for eternity, the thought that our time will be spent looking down on loved ones here is no supported. It also can make kids feel nervous that they are constantly being watched. The truth is Jesus is so captivating that our eyes, focus, and attention will be directed towards Him. Constantly. Second, it is difficult for children to process Dad being in heaven when looking at him in this casket. Beyond the confusing theology of time, death, and redemption–when a child watches a casket of a loved one descend into the ground–that memory stays there. The logical question becomes, how can Dad be in heaven when I saw the casket at the cemetery. With all that being said, lean into Scripture to explain the challenges of death. My favorite is the promise of the Lord that, even in death our loved ones are leaning on the “everlasting arms.” The Lord held her in life, and He holds her in death. If we believe Jesus to be the victorious one who has conquered death–that means there is no place where the love of Christ and His power can’t reach. Death rips apart human relationships. It can not and will not rip apart the connection, provision, and relationship between Jesus and our loved ones. They rest–as they lived–in the everlasting arms of Jesus.
5. Tell Stories
Remind your little one of how much s/he was adored by your loved one. And be specific. Don’t just say how much they loved your child. But tell a story that shows that love. “Papa loved you so much. Your grandma always had a connection with everyone–but you had a special relationship with your Papa. You ran to him first. Always. And when you did it was always the happiest I ever saw him.” Fill in the gaps. Tell the stories. Connect it to emotions. And be specific. (This one will help you in the healing process too.)
6. Draw Pictures and write letters
Especially in the immediate aftermath of death, drawing and writing is a great way to help express pain and feelings. Depending on the age of the child, have them draw or write–or help them do both. I often encourage parents to have children put a picture or a letter in the casket with your loved one. But I also strongly encourage you to make a copy of both as a keepsake for years to come. Drawing pictures and writing letters is a great strategy for grief in the long term as well. Especially when sadness hits, helping children (and adults) express that sadness so that it does not fester is important. If your child draws a picture, make sure to let them tell you all about it first. Ask questions and help them process any emotions with follow up questions: “Tell me more about why you drew this?”
My wife’s grandmother would always take Deanna up to the casket at the funeral home. Deanna was young at the time, but Nanny would still encourage, model, and teach the importance of touching the loved one who had died. It is amazing how the simple act of touching your loved one demystifies death. It certainly doesn’t take the pain away–but it helps take the fear away. I understand this one isn’t for everyone, but consider reaching out and touching your loved one as they lie in state.
8. Meaningful Momentos
We have wind chimes in our house. We got them the day we heard about the death of Momma Judy, the Birth Mom of 3 of our children. They hang in a place of prominence and have been a healthy part of our family’s story. Momma Judy’s oldest daughter, our second oldest, helped us pick it out. They ring from time to time. Their purpose is simply as a reminder. And they serve as a powerful voice as well. There is a standing practice in our house that when we are sad and/or missing a loved one we go ring the wind chimes. Sometimes it is because the ringer wants to talk. We ring it to mark special occasions as well. Often times it rings, just because someone is sad. It doesn’t have to be wind chimes. But I’d encourage you to think through ways to give a voice to the grief into the foreseeable future. I know some families who have a special decorative light. Whatever you do, put some meaningful thought into the item and some meaningful practices for how to create new traditions to honor, celebrate, and give space for ongoing grief.
I am sometimes asked about the wisdom of bringing children to calling hours and funerals. My response is always the same. Bring the kids. I understand the fear and wanting to protect a child’s innocence. Death is a reality that adults struggle to understand and process in healthy ways. And so we project that same confusion onto children and we want to protect them as much as possible. This is not a good long term strategy. And, missing the funeral of a loved one has a decent possibility of back firing. Kids are smarter than we think. They are more resilient than we can imagine. And their insights often bring clarity and peace to you and the situation. Take the kids. They can handle it. Plus, the sound of children in a funeral home and at a funeral radiates hope. Finally, one of the realities of life is that you will have to face death. Modeling appropriate ways to do this for your children is important.
10. A Final Blessing
The last step of the Faith5 is to bless one another in your family. You can learn a bit more about the Faith5 in my eBook. I trace the sign of the cross on their forehead every night before I put my kids to bed. We repeat the simple declaration over one another as we do this. “Jesus loves you and so do I.” Because this is such a mainstay for our family, it has become a part of how we say our final goodbyes as well. At the funeral and again at the graveside, our family traces the sign of the cross on the casket. We say and pray those powerful words over our loved one. Memorable moments are important in formation. And the death of a loved one is memorable–it is steeped in meaning. To encompass that moment in words that have power and meaning–and yet are accessible and already a part of your child’s life is powerful. Pastors give final blessings at funerals because those words have power. Equipping children with similar powerful words is a beautiful word of resurrection in the face of death.