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Guiding Your Child Through Grief

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Helping young children process grief is a challenging, but beautiful privilege.

Our 5-year-old daughter, Dorothy, curiously peeked into the coffin at her grandpa’s still form. The last time she’d seen him, the two had sat together in the Arizona sunshine. His baritone voice had spoken with excitement of the unique plants in the desert landscape. Now, he lay lifeless before her.

“You can touch his hand,” Grandma gently told her. “See,” she said, as she stroked her husband’s fingers. Dorothy hesitated, shying away.

Later, though, I noticed her standing alone at his coffin. She glanced to the left and right. Confident no one was looking, she reached out and quickly touched her grandpa’s arm. She then darted swiftly away.

This funeral was not the first time my husband, Ted, and I have walked our children through loss. Even so, my heart broke as I witnessed our youngest daughter attempting to process death that day. I was reminded how much our kids need to be lovingly and faithfully guided as they grieve.

Model healthy grief

In an effort to protect my kids from additional pain, sometimes I’m tempted to pretend I’m braver and stronger than I am. The problem is that stoicism doesn’t teach my kids how to grieve. Age-appropriate vulnerability does.

Kids need to see the grief process modeled for them. Licensed family therapist Yolanda Brown says, “The healthiest choice parents can make is to engage in the reality of their own loss.”

At the funeral, Ted and I sought to model healthy grief by allowing ourselves to cry in our children’s presence. We also talked openly about our feelings with our kids. “It’s sad that Grandpa died, isn’t it?” we said. “We’re really going to miss him.”

Focus on Jesus

“How can the baby be in your tummy and with Jesus?” Our daughter Ava, who was 4 at the time, asked.

Two days earlier we’d received the devastating news that our preborn baby had died in the womb. Ted and I decided to openly grieve the loss with our young children.

In the days and weeks that followed, our conversations continually focused on Jesus and being with Him. We discussed the eternality of our spirits, read Bible verses together, and prayed. We wanted our children to know that their grieving hearts could depend on, trust and find comfort in Jesus.

Author Kathleen Fucci says this is what kids need the most as they grieve. “Our job is to turn the hearts of our grief-stricken kids back to Jesus. Only He can mend their broken spirits,” she explains. “Our faith in the Lord’s willingness and ability to heal their broken hearts will be evident to them in the way we talk about Jesus, pray to Him, praise Him, read His Word, and shower our kids with His loving words and eternal promises.”

Instead of shouldering the burden of making everything “OK” for our little ones, we pointed them to their heavenly Father, the source of true comfort and peace.

Express Sorrow Uncensored

“Do you remember when Beezus and Ramona’s cat Picky-Picky died?” elementary-aged Savannah asked. She was referring to a story in one of Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona Quimby” books. “Their parents weren’t home, and they buried him in the yard. I sure hope we don’t have to bury Socks in the yard.”

Our cat had suffered an extreme vaccination reaction. We were currently en route to an after-hours emergency veterinarian hospital. We all feared he might die, yet none of us, except Savannah, dared to verbalize it. It was her unique way of processing the situation. (Fortunately, our cat did survive.)

As our family has experienced loss over the years, we’ve encouraged our kids to express their sorrow uncensored. This gives them the opportunity to share without fear of judgment or correction.

It also allows us as parents to better discern what our children are feeling. We’ve discovered that each of our daughters responds to loss in a distinct way. They don’t grieve identically. Giving them permission to speak candidly allows us to be more effective in how we pray and extend biblical hope.

Encourage Expressions of Grief

Not all kids are able to verbally express their grief as Savannah did. “A sorrowful young child may not be old enough to articulate the questions, doubts and fears she has. She may not know she has any,” Fucci explains. “But she will certainly be processing them as she grows older. So now is a great time to lay a strong foundation of truth within her.”

One way we’ve sought to help our girls process what they aren’t able to verbally express is through activities such as art. Following our miscarriage, we encouraged the drawing of pictures. Artwork provided them an opportunity to express unstated feelings. We then attached their pictures to balloons that we released in our backyard. As we did, we read Scripture and reminded our kids that our ultimate home was with Jesus.

Ted and I have found that walking with our children through grief is often a difficult and painful process. It isn’t easy or clear-cut. Yet, in the face of loss, they need us to gently and faithfully walk with them. And, as we do so, we have the distinct privilege of pointing their hearts and their hope to the One who has conquered death and can comfort them as no one else can.

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