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When a Child You Love Is Grieving

When a Child You Love Is Grieving

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Grieving children need an "intersector," a caring individual who intersects their grief to offer support and hope. 

On Sundays in the Nazarene church I attended as a child, it was expected that we sing a rousing, and I do mean rousing, rendition of "Jesus Loves the Little Children." Enthusiastically, we emphasized the all in "all the children of the world" and sang to a resounding finale, "They are precious in his sight." Sunday after Sunday, Ina Quiggins or Roberta Jones would remind us that children were, indeed, precious.

That chorus laid a foundation for my research on grieving children. Jesus had to have known or encountered grieving children.

So when he astonished his disciples by saying, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me" (Matthew 19:14a KJV), it was not far from saying, "Let the suffering children come to me."

It is easy to rely on the threadbare cliché, "Oh, children are so resilient." Such a platitude takes us off the hook. Admittedly, some children are resilient. Some are not. I thought about that as I wiped snow off a gravestone in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Since I am interested in who is buried "next" to a well-known or notorious person, I uncovered the next gravestone: the same last name. As I looked at the birth date on the original marker and the death date on the adjoining marker, I made a connection that sent me to the State Archives for further research. The first uncovered grave was John Dillinger, "Public Enemy Number One," the grave on the left was for Mollie Dillinger, his mother, who died when John was four years old. John was not born "Public Enemy Number One."

During his childhood, individuals, including his harsh father, failed him. Sadly, even a Sunday School teacher, frustrated by his disruptive behavior, failed when she told him not to come back. John was not a resilient child.

In Ireland, about that time, a young boy lost his mother. His clueless father immediately dispatched him to a boarding school in England where beating pupils was common until the headmaster was committed to an insane asylum and the school closed. The grieving boy's soul was scarred deeply. He did not turn out to be a public enemy but a strong spokesman for Christianity, Clive Staples Lewis (C. S. Lewis). At a critical moment, his life was intersected by an incredible teacher, William Kirkpatrick.

Grieving children need an "intersector," a caring individual who intersects their grief to offer support and hope. The intersector is "present" to the child. A child may be spiritually wounded by clichés like, "Your mother is in a better place," i.e., heaven. What the child may hear is, "God took your mother." Many children end up in a spiritual cul-de-sac: "What kind of loving God would take my mother when I still need her!?" As a result of "griefisms," some children carry a smoldering resentment, or anger, toward God throughout their lives.

Children today, due to the zealous media and "This Just In" cable news and the Internet, are uniquely aware of the fragileness of life

whether challenged by earthquake, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, civil war, or other disasters. Children, even as you are reading this article, are struggling in their imaginations with this question: If that happened there, could it happen here?

When innocent children are harmed by the disasters created by human decision, children everywhere suspect a potential threat to their lives.

In an international church, the griefs that impact children elsewhere need to be a topic for conversation, reassurance, and prayer: everywhere.

Grieving children anywhere on the globe equally need "intercessors" who pray for them. We may not know a child's name, but Jesus, who loves "all the children," does. In praying we need to be open to the prompts of the Spirit for concrete ways we may offer assistance to children: through donations of funds or clothes, food or shelter.

Comforting grieving children is important kingdom work as Jesus reminded his disciples, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven" (v. 14).

  • Grieving children do not need to be "fixed," but need someone to listen all the way to the end of their laments.
  • Grieving children do not necessarily need a counselor, social worker, or psychologist but need someone to make room for them and their grief.
  • Grieving children do not need platitudes but need someone to ask, "How are you doing?"
  • Grieving children do not necessarily need explanations but need someone to ask, "What confuses you about what has happened?"
  • Grieving children do not need to be analyzed for "stages of grief" but need someone to offer paper and crayons and ask them to "draw" what they are experiencing. (And that may mean drawing as the child draws.)

How "intersect-able" are you?

Intersect a child's grief by:

  • Listening. The Amish advise: "Listen much, talk little."
    • Listen with your eyes.
    • Listen with your heart. Send up a breath prayer: "Jesus, help me listen to this child."
  • Be "interrupt-able." An intersection may not happen at a convenient moment for you. This cannot wait if the child is experiencing a grief "burst."
  • Do not say, "There, there" to a child. Intersectors do not attempt to distract the grieving child by offering ice cream, candy, a book, or a trip to the playground or mall. Dexter King, the youngest son of Martin Luther King, Jr., lamented that no one let the King children grieve. At any sign of sadness they were off to a distracting "activity."
  • Ask the child what "grief" means? Ask, "Are there any words you do not understand?" Children take language literally and may be confused by adults' death-denying jargon. When someone says, "We lost grandpa," the child thinks, "Let's go find him."
  • Pray with and for the child. Ask, "Would you like me to pray for you?"
  • Never make a promise you do not intend to keep. For a child, an adult's promise to "attend your soccer game," or "take you shopping" is a coupon. Sadly, children learn that few promises made in a funeral home actually come true.

Harold Ivan Smith is a grief educator on the teaching faculty of Saint Luke's Hospital in Kansas City and the author of A Decembered Grief.

Holiness Today, 2013

Please note: This article was originally published in 2013. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.