Walking Kids Through Grief

I'll never forget the phone call.  I was on my way home when it came.  A girl who attended our church, who was also a senior in high school, had just been killed in a car accident.  She was on her way home from school when a reckless driver had ran a stop sign at a high rate of speed and crashed into her car...killing her instantly.  The family had just been told and were at home.  When I walked into their house, the family was sitting in silence... numb with shock and pain.  Looking through the window into the backyard, I saw the girl's brother.  He was a 4th grader who attended our children's ministry.  After spending some time with the parents, I took a deep breath, opened the backdoor and walked toward him.

It is never easy to gather the right words to say or know what steps to take when a child (or adult) is overwhelmed with grief.  But as a shepherd, we are called to walk with people through the valley of the shadow of death.  Let's take a look at some practical steps you can take when walking with kids through grief.  These steps are also helpful to pass along to parents who are walking their children through the death of a grandparent, schoolmate, friend, aunt, uncle or other person.

Share the news of the death.  We wish we could spare children the pain of losing a friend or loved one, but we can't.  It is part of life that we must all deal with.  Sharing what happened will help you set the emotional tone.  

Let the child ask questions.  Invite the child to ask any questions he or she may have.  Be prepared to answer the child's questions.  Giving the child solid answers will help lessen any unfounded fears that might arise in the child's mind.

Stay calm.  It's okay to let the child know you are sad or grieving.  But if you talk to the child in a highly emotional way, he or she will likely grasp your emotions and very little else.  If you remain calm, he or she is likely to grasp the fact that death can upset our lives, but we can learn from bad experiences and work together to grow stronger.

Help the child express his or her feelings.  Encourage the child to express his or her feelings.  Suggest ways the child can remember the person who died by drawing pictures or telling stories they remember about the person.

Be age-appropriate.  Do your best to answer any questions the child may have, but keep in mind how much the child can process at their developmental level.  And remember, it won't be a one-time conversation.  Be prepared to talk as many times as the child needs to come to terms with his or her grief.

Be there for the child.  Just being with the child and spending time with him or her will help them.  Children also find comfort in routines and doing ordinary things.  One of the best things you can for the child is keep him or her in their normal routine as much as possible and be there in the routine.

Encourage the child to create memories of the one they lost.  Think of ways the child can remember the person he or she has lost.  It may be drawing pictures, sharing stories, planting a tree in the person's honor or some other type of memorial.  This can be very therapeutic for the child.

While we can't protect children from grief, we can help them process it and cope with it by helping them express their feelings, comforting them, helping them feel safe and teaching them how to deal with it in a healthy way.  These coping mechanisms will serve them not only now, but in the future as well.