How to Navigate Death with Your Children
- April Motl Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 4 Oct
Many of us ladies were standing around after church talking about the unexpected issues that pop up when you are navigating life with a little person. Some of them had children; some didn't yet. Some had raised their babies a long time ago.
I mentioned a show that depicted a near-death illness of the mom and wondered why they put such drama in family programming. One of the college-aged gals remembered the exact episode I was talking about and said after she saw it as a little kid, she couldn't sleep for weeks and went around tied up in knots over the anxiety of losing her mom. Even though the show's storyline didn't have the mother's death, it was too close for comfort. Her mom was in the group and said, "What! Why didn't you ever tell me?!"
I've heard "Why didn't you tell me?!" so often from parents listening to grown children recount stories of their growing up that it has become one of those important mothering matters I circle back around often.
Kids don't always have the words. (If I don't always have the words as an adult, how on earth would I expect my child to?!) Kids generally express love for their parents by trying to shield them from burdens; despite the many ways they can require of us or stress us out, they generally try to avoid purposefully adding to their parents' concerns.
So when it comes to helping your child navigate death, there's a lot to consider! Do they have the words to express their heart? Do they want to protect their parent from more pain, especially if they see their parent grieving?
Here are three concepts that have helped us walk this journey of grief with our son:
Our family has been through quite a bit of death in the last couple of years. None of it was in the course of a "normal" sort of expected passing. The fallout of grief affected family relationships that have left all of us, including our young son, even more at a loss than the deaths as their issue to grieve.
There have been moments that prayer for sick people was questioned when it had once been ardently shared; moments when praying for the bereaved family brought so much pain the right words were hard to find. Moments the desire to pray seemed to vanish.
None of these responses are out of the ordinary; however, they were hard to watch at first. Then, the Lord reminded me how often I pray to have eyes to see and ears to hear my family. Seeing and hearing the pain and faith struggle was a blessing to be embraced, not something to internally squirm away from or worry over when it was brought to my attention! Those moments of struggle became times when we got to have some good conversation, and new, specific issues were brought to my attention for further prayer. I also began praying that our discussions about these griefs and pains would lodge deep in my son's heart so that later in life, when more griefs came, he would remember the truth of Scripture about how to process through loss.
When you see your child clam up, pray! When they want to talk, pray! When they seem down in the dumps or more difficult in their behavior, pray! All of those outward signs can signal internal struggle as your child processes death.
Remembering the truth about grief is vital to parenting your child through their grief. These four truths about grief have helped me and others through the long journey:
1) Remember that God made your psyche for a world without death.
"(God) He has set eternity in their hearts." Ecclesiastes 3:11
When it feels so incredibly wrong, and like everything is broken because someone has passed away, it's because deep down, your soul knows it is all wrong and all broken.
Death is one of the most keenly felt facets of our fallen state. And perhaps that is one of the reasons it hits family dynamics so hard - it inescapably reflects our fallen natures to us, and those of us with less grace soaked into our souls often process it the most roughly.
When those nasty patches of family life erupt in front of your children, remind them how God made us for a perfect eternity without all this grief. Remind them of the Garden, of God's promise to rescue us, how Christ came to ransom us back from all of this, and that one day soon we will be in Glory with Him and with our family in Christ - forever safe from the grief sin has brought.
These heavy, soul-darkening moments can become gospel moments when we remind ourselves and our children of God's hope and shape their perspective to have compassion and a biblical understanding of how and why grief is hard on all of us.
2) Remember grief is complicated.
Often it is hard to express grief in one instance, and then it flows more readily over another, so watch for that in your child.
A dear friend lost her father very tragically in front of her. About six months later, her childhood horse died. Her mom said she grieved harder over the horse than her father. But in truth, sometimes it is simpler to grieve over an animal than it is a person.
Relationships with people have all manner of conflicting experiences and memories tucked into them. Horses, dogs, pet parakeets - I've watched dear ones who would never soften to shed a tear over a person weep over their animals. And it isn't because they don't feel the grief for the person; it's just somehow easier to let it flow out over the pet. Sometimes grief will flow out over the strangest things. As you parent your child through their grief, remember that they might express seemingly inappropriate amounts of grief over one thing that is really a reflection of all the grief they are wading through right now.
Our son is young, and these moments have required a little more grace and love to get him through. But an older child might benefit from a heart-to-heart talk over all the things that might be spurring this kind of response.
These moments might be helpful to teach emotional awareness in your family. Misplaced grief works just like misplaced anger or anxiety. And this season of heaviness may allow you as a parent to teach some very valuable emotional healthiness and awareness.
3) Remember, grief takes a very long time to process.
A dear friend lost her grandfather, and about two months into her grief process, she asked me what in the world was the matter with her because she still hurt so freshly from it. In talking to her, she revealed she thought that grief would take a couple of weeks to work through and only hurt around the holidays.
Many of us are surprised at ourselves when grief takes a long time - and even more so when we watch our family go through it.
I've read a variety of suggested time frames for grief to settle, but the one I found most accurate in my experience has been five years. Our local Hospice service includes a small pamphlet on grief and suggests that most expected deaths take about five years to normalize if it was not the death of a spouse. If it was a suicide, murder, or the death of a very dear person or spouse, it is longer and more complicated to arrive at that place of "settling" or normalizing the grief. We never "get over" grief; we get used to it traveling along with us, so it doesn't jump on us and overwhelm us so profoundly as when the loss was fresh.
Be patient with yourself, your children, and your family as you all walk the path of grieving. It is a long, arduous path, don't expect it to be less.
4) Remember, grief even made Jesus cry.
I remember a sister telling me one time that she didn't cry at her mom's funeral because she thought her tears would cast doubt on her mother being in heaven because if she was in heaven, then she had no reason to cry.
It's OK to cry at funerals and in the wake of loss because even Jesus cried at a funeral where He was just about to raise the deceased! Jesus, our highest example for life, was deeply moved by grief. He had a perfect perspective on death, and it still made Him weep. In fact, one might go so far as to say that death bothers no one more than God because it propelled Him to the ends of the earth to rescue us from it! So don't for a moment think that you are alone in your grief or that your tears aren't allowed!
When you see your child hurting in their grief, use it as a moment to talk about God hurting with us and for us; use it to teach them how to invite God into their emotions with them.
This brings us back around to prayer, but with a certain intention. As a pastor's wife, I've watched grief and life's trials from a different seat in the bleachers than most people. And one thing I constantly see is that the enemy kicks people when they are down. He doesn't waste opportunity.
So pray for God's protection with a special fervor when your family is grieving - when your child is grieving. If you are close to another family that has experienced loss, pray protection diligently for them. Because, most assuredly, the enemy of their souls is close at hand.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Rawpixel
April Motl is a pastor’s wife, homeschool mom, and women’s ministry director. When she’s not waist-deep in the joys and jobs of motherhood, she writes and teaches for women. Her love of words led her through a BA in linguistics and her love of God’s Word through a Master’s in Religious Studies. You can find more encouraging resources from April here and here. For Scriptural encouragement while you wait on the Lord, read the one-month devotional Waiting for God to Fill the Cradle.