Reading the latest news stories online, I clicked on a story about the recent Boston Marathon bombings that featured a photo of 8-year-old Martin Richard. My heart sank. The sweet-faced boy staring back at me from the computer screen was about the same age as my own son, Justin.
Yet another child killed in tragic circumstances, I thought. A sense of grief hung over me like a storm cloud. But it wasn’t my own grief that worried me; It was Justin’s. He had trouble sleeping after learning about the 20 kids who were killed in another recent tragedy (the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings). Both Justin and his teenage sister, Honor, had questions about their deaths that only God could answer – and their friends were as deeply troubled as they were by seeing young people’s lives cut short suddenly.
I kept reading until I sensed someone approach from behind my chair. It was Justin. “Mom, I can’t find my soccer uniform. Do you know…” his words trailed off as he stared at the computer screen, transfixed by Martin’s photo.
Quickly, I clicked away from the news page and stood up. “Let’s go find your uniform,” I said before Justin had a chance to ask any questions about it. But I could see the troubled look in my son’s eyes while we got ready for his game, so I realized that he’d figured out why Martin’s photo had been onscreen. Sure enough, we discussed death again that day.
Simply clicking away from disturbing stories isn’t a solution to the problem that all parents face in this fallen world: helping our kids deal with death. Even if we do manage to click away (or turn off our televisions and radios), we can’t prevent our kids from learning about people dying – even young people, like them.
It’s challenging to know how to help kids who are grieving the traumatic news of other kids’ tragic deaths. Many professionals like psychiatrists and doctors try to help, but come up short. A 2013 report from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) that analyzed 6,647 research study abstracts found that there are no conclusively proven ways of helping children and teens recover from traumatic events through medications or psychological treatment.
Yet, as a parent, you have more of an impact on your children than anyone else does – so you’re in the best position to help them deal with death. And in the process, you can lead them to the only source of hope that overcomes death – Jesus Christ – and help them deepen their faith as they wrestle with this difficult issue.
Here’s how you can help your kids deal with death:
Start conversations gently. If it’s clear that your kids have already learned about someone’s death (either a person in the news or someone they knew personally, such as a classmate or grandparent), don’t avoid talking about it. Your children may raise the subject with you, or they may not know how to do so – but they need your help to process the news whether or not they bring it up. The Children’s Grief Education Association recommends starting conversations by gently making a simple statement (such as “I’m sorry that [the person] has died”) or asking kids some open-ended questions about the death (such as: “How do you feel about it?” or, if your kids knew the person, “What was [he or she] like?”). When your children don’t want to talk, though, don’t force them to do so; simply let them know that you’re available anytime they do want to talk.
Offer reassurance. Let your children know that they are safely in God’s care, no matter what circumstances they may encounter in life. It’s especially important for them to be reassured of this truth when they’ve heard about another child who died suddenly (such as through crime or a natural disaster), because they may be afraid that they’ll be the next to die. Explain to them that nothing happens apart from God’s care, even in this fallen world, as Jesus explains in Matthew chapter 10 when He tells his disciples not to fear death because God notices and cares even when sparrows die, and people “are more valuable than many sparrows” (verse 31).
Listen well. Give your kids the opportunity to honestly express all of their thoughts and feelings about the death to you – no matter how difficult those thoughts and emotions may be. They may share information that reflects anxiety, anger, doubt, sorrow, frustration, or helplessness. Don’t dismiss their concerns or judge them for what they tell you. Encourage them to say whatever they need to say so they can grapple with it all in the open, which is an important part of the healing process.
Respond wisely to troubled behavior. Grieving children may act out their feelings by being clingy around their parents and other people who are close to them, or they may withdraw from people, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Children processing someone’s death may also have difficulty concentrating on tasks (like schoolwork or household chores) that they had no problems doing before, or experience trouble sleeping or eating. Give your kids grace if their grief affects their behavior, and try to keep their routines at home as normal as possible, to give them the support of a stable schedule.
Answer questions in age-appropriate ways. Young people of different ages deal with grief in different ways. Children who are younger than age 5 tend to struggle with understanding what death really means and need simple, literal answers to their questions so they’ll know that the dead person isn’t coming back. Children between ages 6 and 12 understand death but tend not to grasp their own mortality; they can handle more detailed information and honest answers to whatever questions they ask. Teens tend to search for deeper meaning behind people’s deaths and need you to help them in their search, which can strengthen their faith.
Admit that you don’t know all the answers, and direct them to the One who does. Keep in mind that you want your kids to ultimately rely on God, not you, to help them deal with challenges. So don’t be afraid to let them know that you don’t know the answers to all of their questions, such as why someone died or why God chose to allow a disaster or act of terror to happen. But then encourage them to take their questions to God in prayer. As they the work through their concerns with God, He will meet them where they are and help them discover more about how they can trust Him.
Whitney Hopler is a freelance writer and editor who has served as a Crosswalk.com contributing writer for many years. Visit her website at: whitneyhopler.naiwe.com.