When I was growing up my family had friends with two sons. Both boys had the same genetic disorder, and they were not expected to live a long life. They were constantly in and out of the hospital and back and forth to doctor’s appointments. The oldest, Billy, and I shared a birthday. He presented me with a birthday present every year.
One particular summer when I was 7 or 8 years old, our family received news that Billy’s younger brother, Stevie, had died. Within the next couple of days we were sitting in pews, remembering my friend.
I don’t remember having any long conversations with my parents about why Stevie had died or asking them what happens after death. Growing up in church, I was reminded on a weekly basis that we could die in a car accident or Jesus could come back within the hour. I knew that our souls were at stake if we hadn’t trusted Jesus. I was told Stevie was in heaven, and I believed it.
As a child and young adult, I believed that grief could only be felt because of a physical death. I did not know that grief could also be experienced because of the death of a relationship, lack of expectations being fulfilled, the loss of a job, tragic health diagnosis, or something stripped away that one expected to keep for a long time. In my late 20’s as I experienced more of life’s suffering, I began to experience grief in various ways.
When grief visited our family
My husband and I have six children. Three of our children have died and gone home to the Lord. Our second son was born prematurely and passed away the day after he was born. My oldest was 2, and he was too young to remember everything that happened. His memories are what we have told him and the pictures we have shown him. As our son has gotten older, he has wondered what it would have been like to have a younger brother closer in age with him, but grieving wasn’t tangible for him until six years ago.
Six years ago, our youngest son, Boston, was taken home unexpectedly because of a car accident. Boston was 4 years old. He was the bookend to our crew — vibrant, fun, hysterical, and the sweetest 4-year-old on the planet. My older children at the time were 11, 10, and 8.
The morning of the accident, we all woke up in good moods, ready to face the day. But by the end of the day, our family was beyond devastated, wondering how we would all wake up the next morning. We did wake up the next day, but we awoke to a heavy weight of grief that had replaced our joyful son.
As the dust settled after Boston’s funeral, my husband and I knew our family was encountering something that none of us knew how to navigate. When our second son passed away, my husband and I were the two grievers in the house. Our two older children were simply too young at the time to recognize what was going on. But now, we had three remaining children who had just experienced a very traumatic event. They’d lost a dear sibling, and we had to figure out how to parent our children in the midst of our own individual grief.
Grieving as an adult is rarely done well, and often a child experiencing the same grief can get lost. So, how do we care for kids when they are grieving? Here are three encouragements.
First, give them Jesus.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Grief is hard. There’s no easy answer to it. My response to grief has been different than my husband’s, and each of our remaining children have had their own unique responses as well. There are no rules when it comes to grief. Grief can rip all the rules away and laugh at them.
But as believers, we have comfort in our grief — the One who knows it best. Jesus experienced grief when encountering the Father’s wrath on the cross. He experienced grief when his friend Lazarus died. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3a). In other words, Jesus knows.
Others know, too. And their experiences and stories — particularly their experiences of Jesus’ comfort — can be a catalyst in helping our children work through grief and suffering. Our kids are not alone. Someone has gone through a similar experience before them. Here is an example of a conversation that can be had between a mother and her daughter after a tragic experience.
. . . Steph looked at her mom and said, “You too? Do you have scary dreams too? You’re afraid of today?!” Forcing a smile her mom replied, “Oh yes! After losing your brother I’ve constantly battled with being afraid. Everyday I have to remind myself of the truth. Sometimes every hour. One of your tasks at school is to memorize Psalm 23. As you were practicing verse 4, I took a few minutes to listen, then read the words on the page . . .”
Steph’s mom continued and closed her eyes like she had to remember something before she quietly began to say, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. For you are with me.” Steph’s mom sat as the smile grew on her face. The words washed over her again as she was reminded of what they meant. Then, as she slowly opened her eyes, Steph’s mom looked at her and asked, “Who is the “you” in the passage?” Steph thought for a minute, “God? Jesus?”
In the Bible, we find Jesus in every story — from the Fall to King David to Nehemiah being tasked to rebuild the wall and beyond. Jesus is a constant comforter to his people. I find peace in knowing that he is a consistent Comforter to us and to our children when we adults are a hot mess.
Second, we don’t have to have it all together.
My kids need to know that I struggle too. I struggle deeply and have a lot of hard days. In the midst of those days, I need to ask them to give me grace, but I also need to recognize my children’s pain and not blow it off. It is beneficial for our children to see us grieve, whether it’s the loss of a marriage, a job, a house, a friendship, or a parent or sibling diagnosed with COVID-19. It is okay for our children to see us cry, to see us struggle and to see us wrestle with God. It’s okay for them to see us wonder and ask why.
Why is it okay for us to not have it all together? It’s okay because our transparency will, in turn, give them the freedom to be honest and wrestle without fearing judgement from parents. We must let our children ask the hard questions. We must be okay when we don’t have the answers, and we must trust that God’s sovereign hand is with them in and through both the joys and the griefs. Let’s think again about Steph and her mother:
Steph’s mom smiled and said, “Yes. David is scared too. In this psalm, he’s writing to remind himself of who his God is. He’s remembering that his God takes care of him and loves him and comforts him when things are scary — when he’s terrified to go to bed or to wake up the next day. God is with David just as he is with us at night during bad dreams and during the day when we struggle with circumstances that trigger our grief, or with fear when Dad comes home late.”
“The words of this psalm tell us the truth of who God is even when we are struggling to believe. It tells us that he is there to save us. He will use his word to comfort us — you and me. Always. We have nothing to fear because he is with us, even when it is hard to remember that.”
Steph sat and listened to her mom talk. She realized that her mom probably struggles just as much as she does but hasn’t let on. Her mother lost a son and she lost a brother. It was hard for both of them. They both struggle with fear, and they both need God’s Word to remind them that God protects and comforts them in their moments of fear and doubt.
Notice in the example that when Steph’s mom is honest about her grief, Steph begins to understand that her mother struggles just like she does. That brings us to the next point.
Third, we are in this together.
Our children need to understand that they are not in their grief alone. They need to know we are with them and that we are for them. But most of all, they need to know that Jesus is for them. We need to continually remind them — despite our own grief — that we are there for them when they need to work through their emotions.
One evening I picked up my daughter from her small group and as she entered the car, I said, “How was it?” She sighed heavily and replied, “A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that she was grateful that my brother died.”
Ooof. Even as an adult, those are damaging words to hear. I caught my breath and let her continue without saying anything.
“That really hurt. I know she was trying to be encouraging, because she said something about Jesus working in our lives, but I didn’t really hear that part too well. It just hurt. Why would someone say that!”
I could tell that hot, angry tears were on their way, and I didn’t blame her. Hot tears were filling my eyes as well. Many people don’t know what to say to those who are suffering — just think about all of the missteps Job’s friends made. When it has been years since a death, divorce, or whatever considerable loss you’ve experienced, many folks believe the pain must be gone. However, to the person who has experienced the loss, the memory can be very fresh. A comment like the one my daughter heard can tear a scab off of an old wound and cause the grief to gush freely again.
My daughter wanted to confront the girl. I told her,
“Thank you for telling me. You could’ve kept that inside and you didn’t. I understand that you want to respond and tell her how she hurt you. Sometimes being honest with a friend can be a loving way to help them to better care for people who are hurting. But sometimes when we do that, folks don’t always understand where we are coming from. If we’re still feeling hurt and the other person has never experienced something similar, the situation can get worse before it gets better. There have been a lot of times since the accident that people have said really hurtful things to Dad and me. Do you know what we did? We came home and talked to each other, cried with one another, and fled to Jesus. We have to remind ourselves that people sometimes don’t know simply because they have not been in our difficult shoes. I am so glad that you told me this. Do you know why? Because . . .”
My daughter joined me, “We are in this together.”
We need to remind our children and ourselves that despite what is going on in our lives and our world, Jesus is bigger than the circumstances. He promised us in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” Jesus told us that we would suffer with sickness, brokenness, and death. He died for this, and he is sovereign over it.
As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Thankfully, this world is not all there is. Because we have a secure future, we are able to give the gift of hope to our children even as we grieve together. We can remind them (and ourselves) that we will one day see things fully.
Right now things are fuzzy and out of focus, full of pain and just plain hard, but when we are physically with our Savior, the scales will come off of our eyes, and we will see him, know him, and be fully known. Because we have Jesus, hope remains even in our pain. Let’s believe that he is enough for us and our children as we walk the road of grief with them.