Facing Tragedy: How to Help Children Grieve

How to Help Children Grieve

When my friend's father was dying, my husband and I went to the hospital to pray with her family. I watched from a distance as she explained to her 11-year-old son what was happening. Though I couldn't hear what she said, my heart broke when I saw his eyes fill with tears.

Grief is hard enough for grown-ups, but when a child's heart breaks, the load can seem unbearable. Unfortunately, there isn't much we can do to keep our kids from feeling the heartache of grief. However, we can help children cope and even grow in the midst of their pain.

Be honest

It's tempting to protect our children from difficult situations, but kids can usually handle more than we might think. Don't be afraid to let them visit a loved one in the hospital or to attend a funeral. When they ask questions, do your best to answer honestly in simple terms they can understand. "Grandma got very sick and she died," is much better than saying, "Grandma went away and won't be coming back." Your openness will help them from feeling lost in the shuffle.

Even better, look for opportunities to talk with your children about tragedy in day-to-day life. Books, TV shows, and other people's experiences can spark conversation.

Acknowledge their feelings

The death of a loved one may be the most painful loss, but children grieve many other losses. If your family is experiencing change, whether the birth of a baby, relocation, or the death of a pet, youngsters probably need some time to adjust.

Give your children the freedom to grieve losses that seem minor to you. When I was in grade school, I was devastated when I took second place in a science fair. In the scope of life it wasn't that big of a deal, but my mom wisely understood that I needed a few minutes to cry. (Then she took me out for ice cream.) Allowing your children to grieve life's little losses better prepares them to cope when the big ones come their way.

Help them let it go

Just like adults, children grieve in different ways. Some may become clingy and cry, while others may withdraw. Depending on the situation, your child may not know how to express his grief. When your child is sad or angry, encourage him to express his feelings in a healthy way. An active child may benefit from shooting baskets or going for a long bike ride. A creative child may enjoy drawing, making a memory album or writing down his feelings in a journal.

Most important, be available to your kids. They may not want to talk, but will find comfort from just being near you. If you are overwhelmed by your own grief, ask a trusted family member or friend to take your child under her wing for a while.

Share the promise of heaven

A time of crisis presents a wonderful opportunity for you to model faith to your children. In John 16:22 Jesus offered this promise: "Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." Share the promise of heaven with your children. They will find enormous comfort in knowing their pain won't last forever.

Article copyright © 2003, Joanna Bloss.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
Used by permission.

Joanna Bloss is a minister’s wife in McPherson, Kansas.