Helping a Child Grieve

After what had already been a long week, we received heart-wrenching news from our daughter’s school. A first grader had died. We couldn’t believe it. We knew his parents. We knew his friends. We knew him. In the email, the principal asked parents to share the news with their children that evening. The school would have grief specialists present tomorrow to talk with our children. We had just tucked our second-grade daughter in for the night. We knew she was still awake, but was this the right time to tell her?

This is the kind of moment that no parenting class can prepare us for. Most of us hardly know how to deal with grief ourselves. How do we help our children through grief? The anxiety that unexpected death produces in a community is subtle and hard to measure. How do we help our kids feel safe, when they’ve been confronted with the reality that safety is no guarantee?

Stay Present

Start by staying present to yourself. Like the safety message on airlines, parents need to put the oxygen on themselves before they help their children. This doesn’t necessarily mean making yourself a hot bubble bath or going on a long run. Although, those habits are great. Staying present in the midst of grief means paying attention to what the grief is bringing up for you.

New grief brings up old grief

When we are confronted with a new loss, it can remind us of past losses in our lives. When I was processing the news that a student died at my daughter’s school, I was brought back to the first time I encountered death as a child. I remembered staring at the wooden box in front of me. His mother crying. My teammate from my hockey team laying there asleep. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t feel sad. I felt confused. Other losses came up for me as well, but this loss reminded me that some kids may not react to death in the way their parents expect them to.

New worries awaken old worries

When it comes to the loss of children, fear can grip us as we worry about our own children. The day after we found out about the student’s death, I was talking to folks in the neighborhood. They told me stories of other students from the community who had died in the past. Although those deaths had happened nearly ten years earlier, this death brought the stress of the past into the present. Acknowledging our anxieties to God and others can enable us to be present to our children’s anxiety. Even the Psalmist admitted how heavy grief is, “Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief” (Psalm 31:9).

It’s not all on you

God has promised to comfort us when we grieve. This promise is to both adults and children. Parents don’t have to carry the full weight of caring for their grieving children because the God we know through Jesus Christ has chosen to be right there with us. As Jesus preached in his sermon on the mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Throughout Jesus’ life, we see moments of the grief he experienced. He wept when his friend Lazarus died, and he wept over Jerusalem for not following God. Jesus is intimately acquainted with our ways and knows the task before us is far from easy. Let us look to our grieving God in the midst of our grief and our children’s grief.

Speak the truth in love

When the moment comes to share difficult news with your children, you may be tempted to lie because you think the truth is too much for your child. Lying always leads to more challenges down the road. Instead, share the truth of what happened in an age-appropriate way. That might mean letting your child know someone their age has died, but not going into the details of the death. It will probably mean being open to answer questions they have. They may have fewer or more questions than you expect. Be honest, but as simple as necessary. 

Acknowledge that it hurts 

Loss is painful, and grief is the pain of losing something important. Say out loud that this hurts and makes us sad. Name the upsetting emotions, which not only helps your child process what they are feeling, but also normalizes being upset. Every child reacts differently in grief, so there's no need to tell them how to feel, but allow them to express their feelings as part of the truth to be spoken in love. 

It won’t last forever

Acknowledging the truth of loss and pain isn't the end. There's always the "and yet" in the truth of God. It hurts, and yet God will never leave us or forsake us, even when we feel confused in our grief. Point your child back to the unconditional love of God. The Christian hope is that grief won’t last forever. Even though acute grief is almost unbearable and feels like it will never end right now, in Jesus Christ, God has declared that death and grief will not have the final say. Jesus’ disciple John saw in a vision, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). Grief is a normal part of the human experience and when we grieve, we can hold in tension the hope of a world made new.

Let grief draw you together

When we told our daughter about the first grader’s death, we didn’t know how she would react, but we allowed the grief to move us closer together. Likewise, the next day at school, the grief brought parents and students together on a deeper level. The tears of grief are openings for love to be poured out from one another. The pain may be great, but the love we have in Christ is even greater.

About the author — Rev. Travis Jamieson

Travis Jamieson pastors a church in the heart of Silicon Valley. He has been married to Annie for ten years, and together, they are raising two beautiful red-headed children. In his spare time, you’ll often find Travis surfing at a local beach or riding his Vespa around town taking in the beautiful scenery of the Bay Area.

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