Helping Children Deal With Grief
November 6, 2017—Agreement among my clergy colleagues is they would rather do funerals than weddings. And lately, it seems, most of the clergy I know conduct more funerals than weddings these days—at least so they report. A funeral often is one of the most significant of ministries clergy provide for their congregations and their families. A death is a nodal even in any family, shifting relational centers of gravity, leaving gaps in family constellations, 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.
Often overlooked—if not ignored—however, is 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 experience of grief, is hard, but not attending to them can be harmful. Here are ten common myths about children’s experience with grief:
1. Grief and mourning are the same experience. 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 in duration.
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 grief and mourn.
5. Children are not affected by the grief and mourning of the adults who surround them.
6. The trauma of childhood bereavement 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 instantly teach children about religion and death.
10. The goal in 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:
EVASION (confusion, denial, and withdrawal from the new reality)
ENCOUNTER (with the new reality of loss, the permanent absence of a loved one, new feelings of anger, fear, grief, etc.)
RECONCILIATION (slow and eventual acceptance to the new reality)
Finally, adults should strive to understand how to talk with children about death and grief. Younger children conceptualize and experience death and loss developmentally different than adults, and from older children. Here are general guidelines:
*Use language appropriate to the level of the child
*Tell the truth, identify the cause of death
*Explain what “dead” means: “A person’s (name) body has stopped working and it won’t work any more”
*Don’t anticipate that the child will respond in “appropriate” adult ways
*Respond to any questions honestly. “I don’t know” is a perfectly good answer
*Children need to be listened to more than they tend to need adult “answers” to imponderable questions. Avoid “theologizing” a child’s experience–acknowledge and accept their feelings
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was a hospice chaplain. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists.