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How to Comfort Your Child After the Loss of a Friend

How to Comfort Your Child After the Loss of a Friend

My daughter looked like she'd just lost her best friend. Probably because, in a way, she had. Actually, she'd lost her two best friends.

My daughter's BFF from school and her BFF from church were both still very much alive, thank goodness, and both still wanted to be my daughter's friend (also thank goodness). But her school friend was leaving to go to a different school, and her church friend was leaving to go to a different church. Both were still going to be living nearby, but my daughter wouldn't see them every day or every week. The minutia of middle school and church chatter would have to be carried on via text and chat and FaceTime.

Of course, many parents are far too well acquainted with the pain of children who have lost friends to death or those friends' intentional removal of themselves from their children's lives—the latter plunging their sons and daughters into that particularly excruciating shade of grief known as mourning someone still alive.

I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when she walked into the house the day she learned about her school friend's departure. I held her while she cried, and she told me, "Please don't tell me everything will be okay because it won't." And she was right. We would get through it. The pain would lessen. But nothing would make the practical loss of two friends "okay." Comforting our hurting children without defaulting to "it will be okay" usually requires us to fight our internal settings as parents. Here are six alternative courses of action to take when our kids walk through the loss of a friend.

1. Don't hurry them past what they feel.

As parents, we yearn to heal what is sick, mend what is broken, and right what is wrong. When our children are hurting, we want to ease their pain immediately, if not sooner. But there are times we must let our children walk through—not around—what Ecclesiastes 3:4 calls "a time to weep" and "a time to mourn."

Be patient with your child while they process the new reality they're facing without their friend. Resist the urge to brush off their sadness by telling them they have other friends; friendship is not like a scale where as long as the balance of friends stays the same, all is well. When my daughter lost her friends, she helped me see that those friendships and others in her life had formed a puzzle: incomplete when one piece was taken out.

In addition to striking "everything will be okay" from your stock phrase vocabulary, consider training yourself not to say "cheer up" or "what's wrong?" When in doubt, do what is most universally comforting when someone has lost someone they love: hug them (if they desire it or will allow it) and say, "I'm so sorry."

2. Check-in but allow them space, too.

A couple of days into my journey with my daughter after she lost her friends in a certain fashion, I told her I thought we needed a plan and a code. I would not serve her well by spending the next several days or weeks or months constantly asking, "Are you okay? What's the matter?" I knew she wasn't okay, and I knew what was the matter. But neither did I want to ignore her if she needed to talk it out again or if something new had come up.

We settled on two guideposts: 1) if something else was wrong or if she wanted to talk further about the thing I already knew was wrong, she would tell me, so I wouldn't have to guess what a particular look of sadness or hurt on her face meant; 2) if I wanted to confirm that the look on her face was because of what I already knew was wrong, I could mouth or whisper "your friends?" to confirm and acknowledge her distress and let her know I still cared about her struggle.

3. Give them good medicine.

The day my tween officially found out about her school friend's departure, she was scheduled to help out at a class function. I took her to it, hoping the activity would distract her from thinking about the loss. But she was bored at the event and had plenty of time to think. On the way home, her face was heavy with sorrow, and I mentally scrambled through all my mom's tricks to figure out what I could do to help her.

A few minutes after we walked in the door, my older daughter called to her sister from our family room, "Come out here! I have to show you something!" My heavy-hearted girl went to her sister grudgingly, but I heard them both howling with laughter within a couple of minutes. My firstborn had dug up an old camera she hadn't used since her pre-cell phone days and had hooked it up to her laptop to play a slideshow. While my girls watched old modeling videos they'd made and flipped through pictures of their elementary-age selves, they laughed and laughed and laughed. From the other room, I could scarcely reconcile the sound of my tween's delight with the despairing look I'd seen on her face a few minutes before.

Later, my older daughter asked me, "Did you hear how I had her laughing? I knew those pictures would do it." I loved how her idea beautifully proved the wisdom of Proverbs 17:22: "A cheerful heart is good medicine."

4. Help them glimpse the future.

Long-term thinking is not our kids' strong suit - and that's not their fault. The portion of the human mind responsible for thinking very far into the future does not fully develop until well beyond the teenage years. For this reason, a child who has lost a friend can, with good reason, scarcely see to the point when that loss will not dominate their lives.

Here is where we can step in as parents (whose future-thinking brain matter has hopefully firmed up). If, as was the case with my daughter, friends have moved on from the places in life where your child is used to seeing them, you can commit to helping them maintain the thread of connection. Soon after the day when my daughter knew for sure she was going to lose her best school friend from her school setting, her mom emailed me, asking if we could schedule some time for our girls to spend together. She said she wanted to give her daughter "something to look forward to in the near future." Smart mama. We made the date, and I promised there'd be more to come: weekly dinners or doughnuts before school. Sleepovers. And in the category of "things I never thought I'd say," God bless technology for its power to keep our children emotionally connected even when they're physically distanced.

Suppose your child has lost a friend due to actual physical death or to that friend's intentional removal from your child's sphere of relationship. In that case, you can still reassure your son or daughter that you will do everything you can to help them strengthen and feed their other existing friendships and forge new ones. You can also direct your child to think of activities or events apart from friendship they can plan for and look forward to—a family vacation, perhaps, or a personal goal they're working to achieve. Here again, the idea is not to rush them through their pain or grief but rather to introduce hopeful factors to provide balance while they're in it.

5. Reassure them Jesus understands what it's like to lose a friend.

Sometimes when we're trying to comfort our children, we may tell them, "I understand how you feel." And maybe we do, to some extent. We've likely lost friends ourselves in the past and can sympathize with our children's pain and sense of loss. But here, as elsewhere, no one understands like Jesus.

When our children put their faith in Jesus, they gain the status of friend: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you" (John 15:15). When they lose an earthly friend, this Friend whispers to them, through the Holy Spirit, "I know. I understand. I know how it feels to have someone claim you as their friend one minute and pretend not to know you the next. I know what it is like to have a friend betray you, to turn you over to harm. I know what it is like to have a friend lie to you, break your bond of friendship for something they think is better. I know what it is like to have a friend die." More than anyone else, including us as parents, Jesus offers our sons and daughters the healing balm of knowing they are not alone in their hurt.

6. Go the distance. 

Often when our children are struggling, the crisis passes quickly (thank goodness). More times than I can count, my girls came home distraught over some issue with a friend, but a few texts and a few hours later, they were over it. Truly losing a friend, though, is not one of those times. This is a marathon, not a sprint. When our children lose friends—in any of their various ways this loss can look—we need to keep reminding ourselves that while we may be getting used to the idea of our children's lives without those friends, our children are probably not used to the reality of it. There is no quick fix here. There is only patience, grace, and time, and our job is to commit to the long haul.

After the day my daughter said a certain kind of goodbye to her two best friends, I learned to clamp my mouth shut on "everything will be okay." Instead, I told my sweet girl a few more true things: "it will get better (but you might not realize it until a little ways down the road)." Also, "things may not be the same, but they can still be good." And, "I love you"—the thing we say as parents when we don't know what else to say and even when we do know what else to say because it's the beginning and the end and the foundation for everything worth saying in between.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/shironosov

Elizabeth SpencerElizabeth Spencer is a wife, mom, freelance writer, baker, Bible study facilitator, and worship leader from Battle Creek, Michigan. She writes about faith, family, and food (with some occasional funny thrown in) on her blog, Guilty Chocoholic Mama, and on Facebook. She is the author of the devotional Known By His Names: A 365-Day Journey From The Beginning to The Amen.

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