Children experience the pain of grief and sadness after a variety of events. These emotions can be confusing, both for children and for the adults entrusted with their care. Children in your church family may have been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps they watched family members suffer from the virus and may even have had loved ones die. Recognizing that children express grief differently from adults is important. The healing process of a child may seem confusing to adults at times. Here are some practical tips for ministering to children who have experienced some form of trauma.
Children who are grieving will often have difficulty concentrating and may struggle in social situations.1 These can be clues that they’re dealing with a sad situation.2 Ask them how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking about. Practice reflective listening techniques.
Having an honest conversation about tough topics such as death, divorce, and bullying can make a huge difference.3 When you notice a child exhibiting a lack of ability to concentrate during Adventurers, Sabbath School, or other normal church activities, take them aside and calmly express care and concern, and that you value the child and their emotions. Uplift them, encourage them, and even give them a “special job” to help keep them occupied in a calm manner.
After discovering that a child is dealing with grief, you may wonder what you can do to help. Following are some simple, practical tools to help a child not only survive a loss but become healthy through their pain and grow closer to Jesus.
The “ministry of presence” is one of the most powerful tools an individual church member can offer. Jesus needs His church members to literally be His hands, ears, eyes, and hugs on earth, because one side effect of grief for children is low spiritual interest. Show rather than tell what Jesus’ love looks like.
I (Joseph) became close to a family in my church that had a 9-year-old boy, Nathan. The whole church became excited when the family announced the birth of their second child, a baby boy. Nathan loved his little brother and looked forward to playing with him when he got bigger.
With encouragement, children will be able to handle pain. With encouragement they will feel loved.
A few months later the sweet baby died from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). I visited the family many times after their loss. I often took time to play with Nathan, even teaching him soccer. Years later I received a telephone call from Nathan asking me to perform his wedding. He told me my presence had helped him deal with his sadness, and it had left a lasting impression on him.
The ministry of presence can be practiced in simple ways: sitting with a child after school while they wait to be picked up, or handing them a tissue when they cry. Choosing to go to a sports game or musical performance will provide support during life events where their loved one will be especially missed. Laugh with them, play games with them, eat lunch with them, or be a chaperone for school and church field trips. Presence means being in the same space, as Jesus would be, without feeling compelled to espouse any spiritual truths or explain the doctrine of the state of the dead to them.4
Jesus is present through our care. Your presence will reassure them and let them know they’re important. God loves them and wants them to know that they’re not alone.5 If it’s not possible to physically visit someone because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can reach out through phone calls, video calls, and even letter writing. One of the most repeated promises in the Bible is that God is with us through suffering.6 As His followers, He wants us to be part of His presence in the world (see Matt. 28).
Children need to know that they can grieve without being criticized or judged, especially with the adults they trust the most.
Don’t try to say something profound; children simply need an adult who cares to listen to them talk.
Sometimes a child’s verbal expressions of grief may seem odd to an adult. They may share unusual memories, feel as though the loss was their fault, or long for practical answers to abstract questions. When you feel you don’t have the answers, be honest in your response, pray with them, listen to their stories, and read and discuss Bible passages relating to the type of loss they’ve experienced.7
After experiencing not only the death of her schoolmate but also of her grandfather, a first-grade girl came to my (Natalie’s) office and had some questions about death that she was trying to process.
At her grandfather’s funeral she’d heard that he was now in heaven with Jesus. At her Adventist school she’d heard that her friend was sleeping until Jesus comes. The contrast between these two theological views had confused her young mind. Abstract concepts about death make no sense to a child. She sat down with a puzzled look on her face, but instead of crying or expressing grief in a familiar way, she asked strange questions.
“Pastor Natalie, why did God only take Grandpa’s legs to heaven?” I raised my eyebrows and asked her to explain. She described the open casket funeral service to the best of her ability. She was able to see clearly that Grandpa’s torso and head were still on earth because of the open top half of the casket, and he appeared to be asleep. But to her mind, his legs were gone. Since she didn’t form a concrete idea of something that couldn’t be seen, she assumed that somehow her grandfather’s legs had been cut off and God had taken that half of him to heaven. She didn’t understand what physically happens at death, and was confused about what spiritually happens. But the most important aspects to her were her present concerns: Why couldn’t she wake him up? and Where were his legs?
When children are confused about death, they ask questions that may seem silly to adults.8 Be prepared for them to want to talk about strange topics following a death or other loss in their life. Don’t ignore their “silly” or unclear questions; instead, take the time to answer them in a way the child can understand with simple, concrete explanations.9 By spending time discussing what happens when we die, you can help a child reason through the confusing questions they have about death.
Compassion for children can be shown by recognizing their suffering and trying to relieve their pain. Be compassionate by helping them with the tasks at hand. Talk to the child’s parents about their immediate needs. Offer to babysit for a few hours or to play with the child while the parents do other duties around the house or have their own quiet time to grieve.
Show compassion through intentional conversation to process the loss, dedicated time spent together, making meals or helping with other necessary activities of life, relieving stress by going out in nature together, or encouraging a grieving family to do calming activities such as keeping a prayer journal. You can help a child color in their prayer journal and learn to write prayers.
Helping someone recover from loss can be done in simple, practical ways. Showing compassion means being unselfish with your time and energy as you help children regain their sense of wonder and excitement about the life ahead of them. The best way to show compassion and to help grieving children is by leading them to God, who can take care of all their needs. “When difficulties and trials surround us, we should flee to God, and confidently expect help from Him who is mighty to save and strong to deliver.”10
Encouragement is important for children who are hurting. While processing grief and allowing emotions to be felt is necessary to recover, rediscovering hope and happiness also is essential.“But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Heb. 3:13). The pain that results from sin’s presence on earth can cause a hardening of the heart in children, leading to a distrust of religion later in life. This is why encouraging children to hope again and helping them to see joy and goodness in life is important. Encouraging someone means giving them support or confidence.
With encouragement, children will be able to handle pain. With encouragement they will feel loved. With encouragement they won’t question if God is distant, but will instead understand that He is concerned with their welfare. Remind children of the truth that God loves them, that they are treasured, and that His favor is on them. Encouragement gives them the will to carry on and helps them to experience abundant life (see John 10:10).
After a funeral, loss, or recent tragedy we should not immediately forget about children’s grief. They will have a great deal of support in the days and weeks immediately after the loss, but will anyone be there to listen and be compassionate a month later, six months later, or a year later?
At times like these, when children may be returning to regular routines such as going back to school and extracurricular activities, they will realize their loved one isn’t in their routine any longer. This is when they need our support most. Stay close and check on them around birthdays, holidays, and important events such as graduations, sports games, or school concerts. These are moments when the loss of a person’s presence in their life is felt most acutely.11
The next time a tragedy occurs, remember the children. Take time to help them through pain, and point them to a better future. Jesus loves each child, and He wants us to minister to them through their grieving, showing them the love and hope they can have for the future, and the joy that comes from walking with Him.
S. Joseph Kidder is a professor of Christian ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. Natalie Dorland is a pastor for the Washington Conference and a Master of Divinity student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University.