Telling my 5 year old son that his baby brother or sister had died and was no longer growing in my belly was one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever done. Telling him that his uncle died just a few months later, and attending the funeral was a close second. Coming home from the funeral to find that our beloved family pet, Bloo (the blue Beta fish), had passed while we were gone was salt in our wounds.
How do we lead our children through grief?
How do we help them grieve in a way that moves them toward healing while we are suffering our own traumatic loss?
It starts with our foundation. We, as adults and parents, have to answer these key questions for ourselves before we can help our children through them:
- What do we believe about loss?
- What do we believe about death?
- What do we believe about suffering and the emotional pain of grief?
- What do we believe about God in relation to loss, death, and grief?
My conversation with my 5-year-old about the miscarriage of our long-awaited baby was not our first conversation about death. We had already been talking about how, because of sin, all life eventually dies. Our physical bodies stop working, sometimes because of sickness, sometimes because of injury, and sometimes because of old age. When that happens, our spirits go to heaven to be with Jesus (if we have a relationship with him) and we never get sick or hurt or die ever again. Those ideas came up through our daily Bible reading. We had already talked about funerals and burials because of the cemetery we drive past every day. And we had already laid the foundation of expressing sadness by saying, “I feel sad because (situation)”, and being allowed to cry. These conversations are ongoing. I’m continuously adding to and rephrasing the same truths to fit the current situation and my son’s growing vocabulary and cognitive development.
Having these foundations to draw on when we, and our children, experience loss provides us with a process to explain what has happened, words are already chosen before the moment when they are so much more difficult to access, and both we and our children are reminded that loss is not a new event and we have lots of company in our grief. Namely, that Jesus joins us in our grief, never abandoning us, and giving us comfort and hope.
You [God] keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.Psalm 56:8 (NLT)
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.Psalm 34:18 (NIV)
I [Jesus] have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.John 16:33 (NIV)
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NLT)
Leading our children through grief starts with our own foundation of truth. Then we lay a foundation truth with our children before they experience loss.
Now, when the loss happens, we first make space for ourselves to give expression to our grief, connect with God and connect with others before we have the conversation with our children. This isn’t always possible, but if it is you will find it goes a long way to help you lead your children. Use your foundation to explain the loss to your child. Let them cry, if they do cry, and tell them it is normal to feel strong sadness when there is loss and grief. Use the words “loss” and “grief” to give language to their emotions. Let them know the feelings won’t be this strong forever and they don’t need to be afraid of hurting all the time. Comfort them how they want to be comforted. They might want a hug, they also might not want to be touched and that is ok. Communicate plans for funeral services in advance to your child. Explain what will happen, and let them know you will be with them the whole time. If your child cannot attend, help them make arrangements for their own physical expression of grief such as: releasing balloons, visiting and decorating the gravesite, writing a few kind words of remembrance, or drawing a picture of a good memory with the loved one and placing it in a special place.
My miscarriage happened minutes before my husband and I were supposed to leave the house to take our son to VBS. We called friends to drive him to and from VBS for the week and used that time to grieve together and reach out for more care and comfort from God and our church. At the end of the week, we sat down with our son to tell him what had happened. We cried, we let him cry, we answered his questions as best we could, we reaffirmed our hope in Jesus together, and then we watched a movie together as a family for some relief before bedtime. We kept our son to his routine as much as possible, and we continued to answer his questions as they came up. He just turned 10, and still randomly brings up the loss of our baby sometimes.
Here are some things to expect:
- Children feel their emotions strongly, the intensity of their expression of grief might be hard for you to witness. Know that they will be ok and this expression will not last forever.
- Your child might seem distracted or be eager to move on to a different topic or activity. Children feel their emotions intensely in short intervals. Children need relief and breaks from intense emotion. They will naturally try to distract themselves from the hurt, and that is ok. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or are done feeling sad. Let them have a break or distraction as needed. Some ideas are: coloring or art, outside time, playdates with a friend, a movie or TV show, other activities or interactions your child is interested in and that won’t be harmful.
- Don’t be surprised when your child brings up the loss. It might seem random, and the intervals might vary. They may also have random questions about the loss. This is normal. It is also normal for them to “randomly” start crying about the loss as well.
- Your child might repeat questions, statements, or details of the loss multiple times. Answer the questions as often as they come up, even if you have answered them before.
- Remember that anger comes out of hurt, so your child might express more anger than usual. Check-in with them to find out what hurts and help them express their pain instead of punishing them for each expression of grief-related anger.
- Expect yourself to experience sadness and anger, especially when your child brings up the loss. Use the formula “I’m feeling (feeling) because I’m remembering (the loss)” to express this too your child for your own relief and to model healthy expression to them.
- Exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration intensify a child’s emotional states (just like it does to adults too!). Keep your child on their routine as much as possible and make sure they get good food (or vitamins for picky eaters), plenty of water, and sleep to help them and you get through grief.
Finally, always bring yourself and your children back to the hope we have in Jesus.
– and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.Romans 5:5 (NASB)
Author: Sara Hall
Sara Hall is a writer, teacher, volunteer ministry leader, #boymom, and wife of a phenomenal entrepreneur. She is the author of Tasting Dirt: When You’re Disappointed With God. Sara lives to help people overcome the emotional barriers preventing their best relationships with God and other people by vulnerably sharing her own mental health journey and teaching how to apply the Bible to everyday life and relationships.
You can connect with Sara by visiting her blog @EmotionCulture