Last month, Rev. Jonah Davis provided helpful resources to assist in caring for children experiencing grief in many different situations. In this month's blog post, I'll discuss how we can best be present specifically for children experiencing grief associated with the death of a loved one.
One of the most important ways in which children's experiences around death tend to vary from that of adults is the fact that, depending on age and developmental level, children may need help understanding and remembering what death actually is. While older elementary children can begin to understand that physical death is permanent, it is an understanding that is often tenuous and that can lead to unrealistic expectations when muddled up with faith-based understandings of resurrection. And preschool and younger elementary children, with their tendency towards magical thinking, can easily jump to the conclusion that they caused the person's death, or that the person will return as a ghost, zombie, or other frightening entity.
In equipping families to discuss this challenging topic, it is crucial to do the following:
- Use clear, precise language. Let children know that their loved one has died, and avoid euphemisms like "passed away," "gone to be with God," and the like.
- Talk about death frequently in your day-to-day lives. Have conversations at church frequently about plants, pets, and people who die, making sure children are familiar with the subject and know it isn't taboo.
- Have developmentally appropriate expectations for what children are able to understand about death (here is a helpful online guide) and let families know that kids may forget the details of such abstract conversations and need to be reminded. They should expect that their young child may go to bed knowing that death is permanent and wake up asking when their loved one will return. Meanwhile, their older child may need frequent reassuring that the death isn't their fault, etc.
- Talk with families about what beliefs about resurrection and the afterlife they will share with their child(ren). It is very common for multiple well-meaning family members to tell children wildly different things about what happens after people die. They may simultaneously believe that their loved one has gone to a physical place named heaven; that they are an invisible presence remaining here on earth to "watch over" them; that they are gone forever; that they will only be gone for a little while, soon to reappear; and more. Whatever is decided, be consistent and err on the side of "less is more." It is often sufficient for children who are grieving to know in the short-term that, just as God loves and cares for us when we are alive, God loves and cares for those who have died, and that, while they aren't physically with us anymore, God is making sure they are okay.
If there will be funeral/burial services for the person the child is grieving, it is crucial that they know in advance what to expect. Our traditions around burying and mourning the dead involve many rules and expectations that are often unspoken until the child violates them and is in trouble. A Time to Say Goodbye is an Augsburg Fortress resource, co-authored by Rev. Mary Lindberg and myself, that can be useful in establishing clear expectations for funeral services, particularly Lutheran funeral services. It can also be extremely helpful to invite children to participate in funeral planning (choosing prayers, hymns, picking out photos, etc.), invite them to participate in the service itself (serving as usher, chalice-bearer, distributing bulletins, etc.), and sit down with them and review the bulletin before the service. Last, but not least, it is crucial to allow children as much consent as possible regarding if and how much they will participate in the process. Please never force a child to attend a funeral, be involved in the service, or interact with the body of their deceased loved one.
Lastly, one crucial role that clergy, faith formation professionals, and other ministry professionals can play for families who are mourning is preparing them to "expect the unexpected" when it comes to children's grief. Grieving is a universal emotion that all humans experience, but how it is expressed is very much culturally determined. In one cultural context, it may be considered appropriate to scream and wail. In another, silence is the "norm," etc. Children learn expected behaviors around grief by repeatedly watching people grieve, and it is a process to match feelings to behaviors. It can be very helpful to prepare families to know that, just because their child is not behaving in the same ways they are, it does not mean they aren't grieving. And it does them a world of good to see us mourning, too. They learn from us how to grieve and how to do so in community, knowing that they aren't alone and that we worship a God who accompanies us forever and ever, throughout all of life and beyond it.