When children are grieving

Ministry to children in grief

Norma Osborn, associate pastor, Sligo church, Takoma Park, Maryland.

Jerry's* mom was sick---in serious condition and hospitalized. Jerry prayed. Jerry's third-grade classmates prayed. They believed God would answer their prayers and heal Jerry's mom. Their faith was strong. Their prayers were earnest. But Jerry's mom died, leaving a husband and three young children devastated. The third-grade children wanted to know why. Why did God allow Jerry's mother to die?

That happened ten years ago. I had just begun my ministry. I had so much to learn. I felt inadequate and unprepared to help the children through their grief. There were no reasonable explanations. Even if someone could come up with one, it would not have been understood, because the pain and loss were so great. Perhaps adults can talk about their feelings, express their anger and frustration, share their loss and grief. But what about children? How do the four-year-old, the seven-year-old, and the ten-year-old mourn their loss? I look back on that experience and wish I had known then what I know now.

Children are often the forgotten mourners. In the aftermath of death or divorce, adults are so caught up in their own grief that they are unable to care for their children. Perhaps they are even unaware of signals to look for in order to understand the suffering their children are experiencing. As pastors we tend to care for adults and assume that children are an extension of that care. But that's not necessarily so. Children need special attention and support based on their age and the circumstances surrounding their situation, so that they, too, can begin the healing process.

Myths about children's grief

Most of us know little about children and grief. A recent seminar by the Grief Resource Foundation presented three myths about grief, children, and the reality.

Myth 1: Children don't grieve.

Reality: Children grieve all losses in spurts, several times a day; they re-grieve throughout all developmental stages; they don't know they're grieving, and they don't understand their feelings.

Myth 2: Children experience few losses.

Reality: Children experience losses on a daily basis: at school (sports, grades, competitions, self-esteem, relationships) and at home (control, understanding, dysfunctional family losses one of seven loses a parent to death before age ten).

Myth 3: Childhood is the happiest time of life.

Reality: "A child goes through six developmental stages between birth and age 21. Each stage is marked by a period of continuous change in cognition, feelings, and physical development. Almost every area of life through each developmental stage is totally controlled by circumstances outside of the influence of the child." 1

Pastoring children in grief

As pastors we have the opportunity to minister to bereaved children as we do as adults. We must take seriously the calling to do so. Here are some suggestions.

I. Begin with the Sabbath School. Sabbath School is a good place for both teachers and children to learn about loss and coping with it. Sabbath School teachers have a wonderful opportunity to share with children matters relating to loss and grief as they study the Bible. The stories of Isaac, Daniel, Esther, Joseph, and others tell of traumatic events that young people experience. God helped His suffering children in the past, and He can do so today.

It is important to talk about loss before it comes, before the person is too emotion ally involved in grief. The church should have an ongoing educational process that will help not only the bereaved but also those who want to help the bereaved.

2. Sponsor programs to help the healing process in children. RainbowsTM2 is an example of such programs. It is used worldwide to help children go through the grieving process in times of death, divorce, separation, or abandonment in the family. The 14-week program provides materials that include stories, games, drawings, and crafts that help children discuss with, and learn from, one another. Trained facilitators meet with children in small groups to understand their feelings, help them express themselves, give peer support, and learn that a crisis doesn't have to hurt forever.

RainbowsTM is intended to help children experience normal childhood responses to death and divorce. There may be instances when a child is not coping well and needs more than a peer support group. Facilitators are trained to listen for danger signals that might indicate the need for a child to have professional help.

Parents of children who have gone through the program have found that children have learned that they can show their feelings openly and freely. The comments we receive most often indicate parents' happiness that their children talk with them and express themselves more openly than before. Parents also meet in a discussion group while their children are in a small group. They discuss the same issues as their children and find it a major source of encouragement and support.

Too often we are shortsighted. We visit before the funeral and during the time of the funeral and then the family's grief is for gotten. The fact is that it takes time to get over a loss. Both adults and children need time and encouragement to do their grief work.3 Unless we have a long-term plan for help such as Rainbows we lose the opportunity to help children when they are most in need and their families most vulnerable.

The advantage of having such a program in your church is obvious. But you may say that you are already stretched to the limit and that you can't personally find time to become an expert in this area. Then delegate responsibility. Support your children's ministries director with a budget and with your backing to start this ministry. Empower a group of church members to start this ministry, and you will find them eager to begin. Encourage them to contact Rainbows to find out how to become an official site. Or explore other programs that you or your children's ministries director has discovered.

3. Build a library of resource materials. Published materials are available to help members learn how to minister to children going through a crisis. Recently a mother asked me to help her seven-year-old daughter, Sara. The grandmother who had lived with them for many years was about to die, and the mother wanted to know what to do. She felt it would be hard to let Sara witness death. Fortunately, there was time for her to read a section of a book called How Do We Tell the Children? The book explains what children aged two and up already know about death and their capacity to under stand the issues involved. It suggests what words to use when explaining death and how to help a child deal with grief in various situations such as the death of a grandparent, a parent or sibling, and deaths caused by an accident, suicide, or murder, and so on. The book also provides advice on how to help children be involved with the funeral planning and the funeral services, an important part of the grief process. It helps the parent understand how important it is to be open and honest with children when a crisis has occurred in the family.

I met with Sara as her pastor, and we spent time together reading and discussing the book It Must Hurt A Lot: A Child's Book About Death.4 The author tells a story about Joshua s puppy that died. Joshua feels very lonely; it seems like no one understands. Over time Joshua learns some "secrets" such as: When I love lots I hurt lots; my friends want to help but they just don't know how; everybody handles feelings in their own way; I can help my friends when they hurt. When Joshua's friend's grandmother died, Joshua was able to sit on the bed and cry with him because he understood what it meant to lose some one you love. As we read, Sara interjected her own feelings. Sometimes she felt the same way Joshua did, and sometimes she didn't. But the experience of reading the story was good for her, and I was glad to be of help.

Does your church library have books and videos that parents can use with their children? Sources for information include the Internet, your local library, a person who works for a hospice, a funeral home, and centers around the country that help people recover from loss.

4. Affirm Christian faith and assurance. The faith that we hold and the assurances we have as Christians can comfort and nurture children. As Sara and I were talking, she looked at me and said, "I'm going to see my Grandma again." I wondered if perhaps she was not accepting the finality of death. So I asked her when she would see her again. Her reply? "I'm going to see her in heaven!" We can share the faith that reminds us of our relationship with God, a relationship that is not broken by death or any crisis that enters our lives. "It is important to offer the resources of faith not as a definition or explanation but as reassurance and nurturing to sustain us in our sorrow. It is important that we help bereaved children understand the promises of relationship (which children can understand), even when it is impossible to understand the reason some things hap pen the way they do."5

Children and adults begin to heal when they move beyond blame or explanation and begin to claim memories and stories of their loved one. Yet they need to express themselves, and we must not crush that spirit. Mourners need us simply to listen. They don't want us to give answers. Children need empathy---the ability to recognize the child's inner feelings from the child's point of view, which is the key to a helping-healing relationship. As they sense acceptance and love, and as they begin the healing process, they will turn to memories, stories, and promises of a relationship with God that will last for eternity.

*The names in this article have been changed.


1. "Three Myths of Children's Grief," presented in a seminar for the Grief Resource Foundation, 1978. World Wide Web, TLC Group.

2. Contact Rainbows by writing to 1111 Tower Road, Schaumburg, IL 60173. Phone 1-800-266-3206 or 847-310-1880. Fax 847-310-0120. E-mail: rainbowshdqtrsgworldnet.all.net or visit their Web site at www.rainbows.org.

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3. See Judith Alien Shelly, The Spiritual Needs of Children (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1982), 113.

4. Doris Sanford, It Must Hurt A Lot (Portland, Ore.: Multnomah Press, 1985).

5. Richard B. Gilbert, "Protestant Perspectives on Grief and Children," in Bereaved Children and Teens (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 117.

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Norma Osborn, associate pastor, Sligo church, Takoma Park, Maryland.

April 1998

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