How to Minister to a Family Who Has Lost a Child

Last week, I received a call from a family who had lost their child.  They asked if I would conduct the funeral.  My heart always skips a beat when I am asked to minister to a family who has lost a child.  It never gets any easier.  It's one of the hardest things you will be called upon to do in children's ministry.  I've ministered to many families over the years who have lost a child.  Here are some things I want to pass along that I've learned along the way.

Being there is the most important thing.  In the back of our minds, we understand that one day when our family and friends have lived a long life of many years, that we will have to say good-by to them.  But as parents, we never expect to lose a child.  We never anticipate our child dying before us.  And when it happens, it is devastating.  It crushes us.

The family is feeling pain that is mind numbing.  They are experiencing incomprehensible grief.  Walking into this situation can cause you to feel inadequate as a minister.  How can you help them?  What will you say to them?  What do they need?

First and foremost, they simply need you to be there.  They need a hug.  They need a shoulder to cry on.  They need someone to sit with them in the silence and weep with them.  They need someone to walk with them and help hold them up.

If you look at Scripture, God never promises that our lives will be trouble free or not have pain and suffering.  But what He does promise is to be with us through the tough times.  He has promised that even when we "walk through the valley of the shadow of death" He will be with us.

Be Jesus' arms of comfort wrapping around them.  Be Jesus' tears crying with them.  Be Jesus' shoulder they can lean on.  They probably won't remember much of what you say.  But they will remember that you were there for them.

Don't try to answer the why, because you can't.  You will hear many parents "why?"  I'll never forget standing outside a hospital room and hearing a mother ask me, "Why is my precious little boy dying from cancer while there are people selling drugs and murdering who are perfectly healthy?"  And the ones who are not saying it out loud are thinking it.

Let them know it's okay to ask why.  In fact, remind them that Jesus even asked "why?" when He was dying on the cross.  When asked "why?" it's okay to say "I don't know.  I don't have all the answers."  We live in a world that has been broken by sin.  There is sickness, heartache and pain.

In times of crisis, what you don't say is just as important as what you do say.  Choose your words carefully.  If you're not intentional, your words can cause more harm than good.  Avoid cliche' statements such as "God needed another angel in heaven" or "He or she is in a better place" or "There's a reason why everything happens" or "I know how you feel" or "God will give you more children" or "You'll get over it."

Don't try to be a counselor...simply be a friend.

Point them toward hope.  You may be wondering, "If I can't answer the why, what can I tell them?"  This is where hope comes in.

I Corinthians 15 talks about death.  I think it makes an interesting comparison when it talks about the "sting" of death.  You see, death stings, doesn't it?  The sting can come unexpectedly.  The sting is painful.  The sting can make you numb.  The sting hurts.  You never get over the sting.  I think you need to be honest and tell parents this.  They will never get over the death of their child.  They will get through it, but they will never get over it.  It will sting them for the rest of their lives.  There may be times when the sting subsides a little, but it will always be there.  And later there will be triggers that cause the sting to hurt as much as when they were first stung.  The trigger may be a song they hear, a birthday that reminds them there will be no party for their child, an empty bed, a toy that sits undisturbed.  Time does not heal all wounds.

You can't take the sting away.  But what you can do is point them to what I Corinthians 15 goes on to say.

"Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: 

Death is swallowed up in victory.  O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?  For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power.  But thank God!  He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ." 

What you can point them to is the hope we have of eternal life.  They will get to see their child again. Death is not the end.  This can give them comfort and give them something to hang onto even in the midst of the sting of death.

Look for practical ways you can come alongside them.

  • Help them with funeral arrangements.
    • special songs they would like used?
    • special memories they want shared?
    • special scriptures they would like read? 
  • Provide meals. 
  • Run errands for them. 
  • Help watch their other children.
  • Get them connected to grief counseling. 
You obviously can't do all this by yourself.  Ask other people to assist you in this.

Don't forget about them after the funeral.  Don't disappear.  After two weeks, people tend to move on and stop checking on the grieving family.  Be there for them.  Give them some space if they want it, but remember that the world can be a lonely place for someone who has lost a child.  Continue to walk with them.  It's a journey they will be on for the rest of their lives.