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Grieving Children
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“Uncle Red passed away last night,” my mother shared one morning after breakfast with my brothers and me. I was about eight years old. “In a couple days we’ll be attending the funeral service.” I felt a big knot in my stomach. I had never attended a funeral service. My family didn’t express grief very openly and when I attended my uncle’s service it only confirmed this fact. All my cousins were crying. My uncles and aunts shed tears. But my family sat very quietly in the front row. Since my dad gritted his teeth and held back the tears (even though it was his own brother who was in the coffin up front), I gritted my teeth too.

Since then, I’ve discovered a few things about grieving that can help children process better this time of emotional pain. Perhaps the most important lesson is to learn to talk about what happened. It doesn’t need to include gory details. Share some of the basic facts. “Uncle Red had heart problems. He was at home when he had another heart attack. The ambulance took him to the hospital. They were not able to get his heart going again and he died.”

Informing your child that someone close to the family has died can feel overwhelming. Some people find it helpful to have a friend or pastor present because you may be feeling emotionally devastated yourself. It’s better to keep things simple and honest. Answer questions. Don’t lie. Explain what will happen in the next few days. Ask them what they would like to do (stay home, go to school, etc.). Routines can provide comfort when it seems the world is falling apart.

Share tears together. If you never cry in front of your children, they may wonder if you loved your friend or relative who passed away. They may also bottle up their feelings and never process them leaving an ache that won’t easily go away. And expect a variety of responses from children. Some will express strong, angry comments. Others will burst out crying. Still others may bottle things up inside. Talking about it will help. Lead the way. Say things like, “It hurts so much I can hardly stand it” or “I am going to really miss visiting Uncle Red at his farm.”

Watch Your Words

Watch your words. Some things you say can help. “I’m sorry your uncle died” or “What will you miss most about Uncle Red?” is much better than, “I know just how you feel” or “You’ll get over it.” Express loving kindness, like “I care about how you are feeling.” Avoid phrases that close the heart, such as, “Tears won’t bring him back.”

Invite your children to show love to your friends or family that are hurting. Perhaps they can help choose and send flowers. Ask them if they would like to write a letter or send a card to the surviving family members. Have them help you bake cookies or bring food to a service.

Should a child attend a viewing or a funeral where there is an open casket? The spectrum of cultures and preferences on this is wide. More often than not I’ve observed many families bring their children to viewings and don’t give it a second thought. Yes, it feels very sad, but it can be a way of helping the child (and yourself) know, “Uncle Red has died. There’s no question about it” and “Look at all the other people who loved Uncle Red and feel like I do inside.”

Most of all, pray with your children. Express how you feel to God. Then share with your children meaningful Bible verses that show them Jesus felt grief (John 11:35) when His friend Lazarus died. Tell them about the hope of the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). And remind them that someday God will stop death from happening and wipe away all our tears (Revelation 21:1-4).

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By Curtis Rittenour. Copyright © 2011 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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