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Along the Journey  |  

Children and Grief

My clergy colleagues agree that they would rather do funerals than weddings. It seems that most clergy I know conduct more funerals than weddings these days—at least so they report.

A funeral is often one of the most significant ministries clergy provide for their congregations and families. Death is nodal in any family, shifting relational centers of gravity, leaving gaps in family constellations, and bringing the experiences of loss and grief to the family. At such a time, the ministries of pastoral presence and congregational community provide immeasurable support and a buffer to overwhelming loss.

Children and grief are often overlooked—if not ignored. Adults need to pay better attention to how death and grief impact the children of the family.

Clergy and family members need to do much better than ignore a child’s experience of a family death, the confusing flurry of the surrounding experiences (mostly centered on the adult experiences and needs), and its aftermath.

Granted, talking with children about death and their understanding of grief is complex, but not attending to them can be harmful.

Children and grief myths

Ten common myths about children’s experience with grief:

  1. Grief and mourning are the same experience. (No. Grief is the inner experience of loss–mourning is its outer expression. Create ways to allow children to mourn and express their feelings).
  2.  A child’s grief and mourning is short.
  3.  There is a predictable and orderly stage-like progression to the experiences of grief and mourning.
  4.  Infants and toddlers are too young to grieve and mourn.
  5.  Children are not affected by the grief and mourning of the adults surrounding them.
  6.  The trauma of childhood grief always leads to a maladjusted life.
  7.  Children are better off if they don’t attend funerals.
  8.  Children who express tears are being “weak” and harming themselves in the long run.
  9.  Adults should be able to teach children about religion and death instantly.
  10.  The goal of helping bereaved children is to “get them over” grief and death.

The adults in a child’s life can help the healing process of grief in children by being aware of three broad stages of grief:

Children and grief guidelines

Children of different ages understand death developmentally differently.

Here are some general guidelines to keep in mind when discussing children and grief:

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Along the Journey Dr. G. & Friends