Death is a familiar and unavoidable aspect of human existence that weighs heavy on people’s hearts.
COVID-19 has made the reality of death much more apparent, moving it from the general awareness we all have about an ultimate end to the forefront of our minds.
Nearly 33 million cases and more than 580,000 deaths involved the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Children are often ignored, or at least overlooked, in conversations about helping people cope with grief.
We often try to “protect” children until they are mature enough to handle grief.
Yet, psychologists have found that children understand death as early as preschool. So, it is important for children ministers and congregational leaders to know how children comprehend grief and how to help them cope.
A child first begins comprehending death around the ages of 2 to 5, yet they are not able to fully comprehend the finality of death. To them, death is more like falling asleep, and the person who was “asleep” will eventually wake up.
For instance, during my father’s funeral, a child kept asking why my dad was not present at his funeral. Although she understood that my father had died, she was not able to comprehend that my father was not coming back.
One of the most popular theories referenced when dealing with grief is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief.”
The first stage of denial appears to be most relevant to preschoolers. When preschoolers experience something traumatic like death, they simply deny the loss and act as nothing has changed.
We see an example of this stage of grief in Scripture when Peter immediately denies the possibility of Jesus dying in Matthew 16:22-23.
We can only speculate how this denial would have affected Peter mentally when Jesus died, and Peter had to cope with what he thought was impossible.
If pastors neglect to walk with children through their denial, the repercussions could continue to haunt them for years.
Holly Torbic, in her article, “Children and Grief: But What About the Children,” describes how children in this age group are egocentric. As a result, preschoolers can only process their grief in short outbursts due to the intensity of their grief.
One of the ways this grief is expressed is in what Torbic calls “magical thinking,” such as, “If I wish on the brightest star, I know my grandmother will return.”
To adults, these explanations can appear to be ludicrous, but this is often how preschoolers process their grief. In their unique way, they are trying to create an explanation for why their loved one is absent.
One of the most important first steps to helping preschoolers cope with grief is for congregational leaders to be available to the child to answer any questions they have.
If a child has questions, it is important to give the child honest, simple and concrete answers. We should avoid sugarcoating death, such as saying their loved one is asleep.
The second most important thing that congregational leaders can do is to be aware of the child’s emotional state and daily interactions.
Some children may not be as quick to talk about the loss, so adults need to create a safe environment for the kids to express their feelings.
“When interacting with grieving preschoolers, the adult’s role is not to cheer them up, distract them from their grief, nor lead them toward their grief,” Torbic writes. “Rather, it is to provide a safe place where children lead you. One of the ways you can provide a safe place is to provide a safe place for play.”
Play is an essential aspect of preschoolers that not only helps bring joy into their lives, but also helps them learn how to express feelings. One of the most effective forms of play for grieving children is storytelling.
When it comes to grief, psychologists have found that preschoolers will often repeat the same story over and over again because they are trying to verbally process what has happened.
For children who have difficulty verbally telling their story, it could be useful to provide physical aids, such as drawing pictures or using puppets.
Lastly, it is important to validate any feelings that the child may be expressing and to remind them that although their loved one is truly gone, they will be able to see them again in heaven.
Preschoolers have the capacity to understand and experience grief as an inescapable truth.
While it is true that they may not be able to fully grasp what they are feeling, their grief is just as real as an adult’s.
Sitting down with children during grief is a difficult task, but it is also a sacred and vital opportunity that we have as adults.
In Luke 18, we are told that some children were brought to Jesus for him to bless, but the disciples tried to stop this from happening.
However, Jesus rebukes his disciples’ actions, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Jesus valued these innocent children and did not reject them.
If we are supposed to model our lives by Jesus Christ, why then would we ever reject a child in need of healing?
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on ministering to adolescents in times of grief. Part two is available here. This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage him or her to submit his or her article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.