Grieving children

Children deal with grief differently than adults. I have often been serving driving families where a child will be playing quietly while we discuss funeral plans. On the surface, sometimes, it seems as if the child isn’t taking in all of the things that are occurring in the family. The child will be aware that the adults are upset and will even try to comfort a crying adult, but will then return to familiar toys and seem to withdraw from the conversation. I have worked with adults to help children understand what is going on. I have spoken with children and answered their questions. Often when a young child asks questions about what is going on they aren’t the big philosophical or theological questions, but rather practical and technical questions. They are curious about what will happen to the body of the loved one. They want to know what is behind a closed door at a funeral home or a church.

The concepts of life and death and eternity are difficult for a child to grasp. “Forever” is not something that makes sense to a young child. Often the reactions of adults instills fear in a child. I clearly remember working with a family who had lost a child refer to her dying in her sleep. “She went to sleep and didn’t wake up” was a phrase that they said to their other child to try to explain what had happened. The result was that the other child developed a deep fear of falling asleep. The child was unable to sleep in his own bed and would only reluctantly fall asleep when being held by a parent. He would wake with deep fear and need to be comforted multiple times during the night. The process of caring for him was exhausting the parents months after their loss.

While it is true that the global coronavirus death toll has been lighter among children and youth than among older persons, it is important that we all remember that children remain deeply affected by the pandemic. Even if they don’t experience symptoms as severe as adults and even if they are more likely to survive the virus, they are in families who have experienced death and loss and are immersed in grief. 200,000 Americans. Almost a million deaths worldwide. 32 million cases confirmed globally. That is a lot of sickness. It is a lot of death. It is a lot of grief. And there are a lot of children who are seeking to understand what has happened in their families.

And children are swept up in the pandemic in other ways as well. Even those who are not directly related to someone who has died and who are not a part of the wave of grief that is sweeping the world are affected. They have had their school schedules rearranged. They have sensed the fear that their parents have. They have needed to adjust to wearing face masks and taking preventive measures. They have heard from friends and teachers about the dangers of the virus. They wonder where it all started and what it will mean in terms of additional changes in their lives.

Children look to the adults in their lives to figure out how to respond to the events of their lives. Children of fearful parents often become fearful themselves.

We are nearing the mid point of our 40 days of prayer for children. We can look back at the prayers we have made since September 7 and we can look forward to Children’s Sabbath on October 18. We can count the days and understand that this particular discipline takes place in a limited amount of time. 40 days, however, is a short time when it comes to grief. It is too short of a time for the pandemic to reach its conclusion. When we have completed our formal prayer vigil, illness and death and grief will remain. When we have reached Children’s Sabbath, families will continue to be surrounded by grief.

It is important that we understand that the need for prayer will continue. The vigil is about changing our entire lives, not about a few minutes each day when we think about children. The second funeral at which I officiated and the first case in which I was called upon to make a death notification to family members, back when I was still a student, was the death of a child. The family had lived on a farm and the children had played in an area of a barn where pesticides had been stored. One of the children had been poisoned by the chemicals and died as a result. It feel to me to take the news to the mother and to officiate at a funeral where siblings were present. I had the support of my seminary teachers and community as I prepared for the funeral, but I felt totally inadequate for the tasks that were mine. That feeling has never left me. I never know the right words to say or the right things to do to comfort grieving parents and family members. The event did start me down the road of a decades-long career of seeking to serve those who grieve and seeking to find tools to support families who have experienced loss. Sorting through my books in preparation for our upcoming move I am struck by how many books about grief and loss I have read. Still, I feel that there is so much more that needs to be learned. Still I feel inadequate in the face of grieving children.

God who holds in your heart all of the grieving people of the world, we pray today for children who are swept up in grief. May their pain be eased. May their fears be calmed. May they receive your peace that passes all understanding as they are swept up in their own grief and the grief of family members. May they learn to trust in an uncertain world. May they find the love, care and nurture that they need. Bless them today and every day. Amen.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!