Talking with Children About Grief

Evangeline Burgers - Director of Children’s Ministry
Evangeline Burgers – Director of Children’s Ministry

by Evangeline Burgers

In talking with members of our church family in the past few days, I am realizing that COVID-19 and the loss that trails behind it is starting to hit very close to home for many of us. A member of our church family passed away last week from the virus. You may very well know others who have lost their lives recently, due to COVID or other causes. Unfortunately, there may be more in the coming days.

So how do we tell our kids about death and dying? How can we help them grieve? Last Fall, our Sunday School teachers participated in some training in how to help our children with grief. I have some of the highlights below and I’ve also added some more tips I found helpful in watching this recent webinar* on talking with children about death. I encourage you to watch the video, but here are some highlights.

Helping Kids Cope with Grief:

– Speak completely about death with children: “____ stopped breathing and they have died.” Avoid saying confusing things like, “_____ is sleeping for a long time.”

– Model openness and vulnerability for children: Name exactly how you’re feeling when you find yourself missing someone who died.

– Name that it is okay to laugh and be happy when you’re feeling sad and missing someone who has died.

– Encourage children to ask questions.

– Reflect on coping strategies that work well for you. Model these and name them for your child(ren). For example, “I need to go for a walk right now to help me think about my sadness.”

– Grief is not only about people dying. Our children may be currently grieving other things, like seeing friends, playing sports, going to church and school, etc.

– Follow kids’ leads for their preferred grief outlets: coloring, imaginative play, playing games, etc.

– Some children may be withdrawing into solitude in their rooms – keep inviting them to do activities as a family, like eating together, going for a walk, playing games, or whatever their interests might be.

– Talk about all of the helpers in your community and the extraordinary displays of love being shown by humanity right now!

– Don’t try to fix their feelings. Let them feel sad and affirm their sadness with statements like, “I feel sad, too.”  Giving them space to feel their grief equips them for emotional regulation.

– Be patient with their grief process: your child might have big feelings about seemingly trivial things. (my son Henry was SO mad today that he couldn’t eat pizza for lunch!) This is part of their grief process.

Good Theology for Talking with Kids about Loss:

– Jesus came here to be human and show us all of the feelings. John said, “Jesus wept”. God’s faithful people do not always experience joy. It is okay to feel sadness and despair.

– When children ask tough questions, it is okay to tell them that we don’t know all of the answers. Have grace for yourselves. We don’t know the full nature of God.

– Children may need some sensory practices to help them remember God is with them. Light a candle, ring a bell or chime, or give them a rock to hold to remind them that God is near.

– Children can write a letter to God with their feelings. Tell them God is big enough to handle any feelings or thoughts they lift up.

– Go into the Psalms and read them with your child to show them that generations of people have suffered and asked questions of God.

– Reread the Holy Week scriptures together. Acknowledge the suffering Christ endured, while also reminding them that the story did not end with Christ’s death on the cross. Help them make spiritual meaning in this: what we are experiencing now is not the end!

– Be ready to theologically learn from your child. They can be the best theologians around!

Children’s Book Recommendations:

Badger’s Parting Gifts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRTRABhJTbo

The Invisible String: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WlUxXexjhYI

Images of God: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0rWTFJPTvA0

 We Are Here For You:

Please know that our clergy and church staff are also here for you and your family right now. Feel free to email us or give us a call if you and/or your children need someone to talk with about big feelings. I also encourage you to join our PUMC Families WhatsApp group to share/receive ideas, prayer concerns, and to stay connected. While we cannot gather together physically, please know that your feelings are valid and that you are not alone!

Love,

Evangeline Burgers

Evangeline@PrincetonUMC.org

Director of Children’s Ministry at Princeton United Methodist Church

She/Her/Hers

Preview YouTube video Parent Webinar – Talking with Children about Death

Parent Webinar – Talking with Children about Death

Preview YouTube video [Badger’s Parting Gifts] By Susan Varley ♡ Spoken Ruby Dee

[Badger’s Parting Gifts] By Susan Varley ♡ Spoken Ruby Dee

Preview YouTube video The Invisible String Read Aloud for Kids!

The Invisible String Read Aloud for Kids!

Preview YouTube video Images of God for Young Children by Marie-Helene Delval

*The webinar involved two experts from Green Leaf Psychology (Dr. Jennifer McCollum, Licensed Clinical Psychologist) and Sandra Concannon, Marriage & Family Therapist, along with four from Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church —  Rev. Jaime Polson, Pastor for Family Ministry & Executive Leadership, Lori Robinson, Associate Director of Children’s Ministry, Keris Dahlkamp, Director of Youth Ministry, and the moderator, Ryan Timpte, Director of Children’s Ministry,

 

Rev. Catherine E. Williams: Beyond Death

Jebutterfly (1)sus said: I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. We honor the lives of those who have died in the context of Christian faith and hope, says Rev. Catherine Williams, believing that the resurrection is central to our faith, and it is ultimately the words of Jesus Christ that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death.

Beyond Death was the topic of Rev. Catherine Williams’ sermon commemorating  All Saints Sunday, November 1, 2015. Among her references: Psalm 16:11, Romans 8, 1 , 1 Peter 1 and the Book of Revelation. Her thoughts, she said, turned out to be more of an extended reflection than a sermon.  She began with an anecdote. 

I had barely begun here as an intern in the fall of 2008; I was standing in the Sanford Davis room after the first service, scanning the room at my eye level when I felt a tug at my robe. I looked down into the sad eyes of a 4th-grader who without any introduction or small talk asked me pointedly, “Where is Mrs. Fullman now?” I scrambled through my mental Rolodex and came up with a Mrs. Fullman who had recently passed away, and who had given outstanding, compassionate leadership to this congregation. I stooped down. My eyes came to the level of those misty pools of brown in that chubby face. “Mrs. Fullman is in heaven now; she is with God,” I said. “Where is heaven?” she shot back. “Well, I said, “some people say it’s up there or out there. We don’t really know where it is, but we know that wherever it is that’s God’s home.” Slight pause…then,“Is that where my dog is too?” There was no escaping the tinge of hope in her voice. I had no dog in my Rolodex, and to be honest, had never given much thought to a theology of animals. In times like these there are two voices in my ears – the rational theologian on my left shoulder and the compassionate pastor on my right. Sometimes they both help me respond well to unexpected questions, but this time my theologian was quiet for a little too long, so following the pastor’s voice I said, “Oh yes, God made the animals and wants them to be with him after they die too.” My inquirer gave me a brief, satisfied smile and disappeared as quickly as she had appeared, leaving me to marvel at the sacredness of that encounter.

When it comes to the subject of life after death we all have thoughts and questions, even if we entertain them only briefly. But like this child, we grapple with these questions mostly in the context of personal loss. When we are about to lose or have lost a loved one, or when we are confronted with our own mortality, it is natural for us to begin thinking about what happens after we die. People have asked questions such as, What do we do in heaven? It sounds boring! Do we spend eternity with those we love or is it one endless cocktail party with millions of souls? Do we have a form in heaven or are we just spirits? What age will I be in heaven? If my mother is there will I recognize her? How good do I have to be to get to heaven?

I remember being with of one of our members the day after the doctors had told her that her body would only continue functioning for another day or so. As I settled in a chair by her bedside she looked me in the eyes and matter-of-factly informed me that she was going to die. How do you feel about that? I asked. She shrugged, “I’m okay.” Pause. Then, ‘how will it happen?’ she wanted to know. The theologian on my left shoulder began her spiel about how no-one really knows, and I had to put her on mute so I could better hear the compassionate pastor on my right shoulder. “It will be beautiful,” I assured her. “Jesus is waiting to welcome you home with open arms.” She nodded and smiled. I’m not sure whether she was humoring me or my answer really resonated with her, but right then in that room I could sense the unmistakable presence of God. I have to tell you that one of the reasons lately I have come to believe heaven is beyond death is because I have sensed the presence of God at so many end of life horizons – anytime I’ve had the opportunity to be with someone just before, at the moment of, or just after their passing, I have witnessed God’s reassuring presence in ways that are humanly difficult to describe. As one of our favorite Affirmations of Faith ends – in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone.

Today we commemorate All Saints Sunday. We honor the lives of those who have died, and we do so in the context of Christian hope. Hope has always been vital to the people of God. Our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah is filled with it. Thousands of years before Christ, God’s people learned how to hold on to hope in the midst of a pain-filled existence. Life on earth forced them to look for relief. One such relief was in their hope of a future day where God would vindicate them, deliver them permanently from their national enemies, and be their host around a rich feast of the finest bread and wine. Days of scarcity would be over as God’s abundance would overflow generously. The poetry speaks of God removing the shroud and sheet of death that had been cast over the people. A fitting image for many of our international neighbors today, particularly in the war-ravaged Middle East. The Old Testament Middle Easterners believed God would triumph over death, they declared God would feed them, wipe away all tears from their eyes, and bring them to a place of peace and wholeness in God’s presence. Hope has always been a cherished commodity of our faith.

And it is the writings of Scripture that have not only given birth to our hope down through the ages, Scripture has also fed and sustained this hope. In Psalm 16 the Psalmist sings that in the presence of God there is the fullness of joy. Romans 8 reminds us that it is not only humans who yearn for God’s ultimate salvation but the entire creation groans and waits to be liberated from its bondage to decay. In 1 Corinthians 15 there is a beautiful treatise on death that argues for the resurrection of our glorified bodies. In 1 Peter 1 the apostle fairly sings about this living hope of an ultimate salvation where there is even an inheritance kept in heaven for us. And the writer to the Hebrews puts another spin on this hope by reminding us that as we run this earthly race we are surrounded and encouraged by a heavenly cloud of witnesses that includes people who have died in faith centuries ago.

Then there’s the sublime poetry and prose in the book of Revelation. There the writer has a vision of the Holy City beautifully adorned. But even more than the splendor of the city – even more than streets of gold, walls of jasper, and gates of pearl, the most magnificent aspect of this vision is that it is the place where God dwells among mortals. And the place where mortals call home. When someone asks for my elevator response to the question where is heaven, I say, it is where God is, and where God welcomes the people of God who transition from this life to the next.

We really don’t have adequate language to describe eternal realities. But that doesn’t stop us from using the language we have – to dream, to sing, to reflect on an eternity with a God who loves, deeply, generously, and in whose presence we are forever moving towards wholeness and fulfillment. I prepared for this reflection with my Bible and my hymnal both open. It is no secret that the songs we sing from the base of our operational theology. When it comes to life beyond death we turn to such songs as Abide with Me, with its witness of God’s tenacious grasp on our lives, no matter what the circumstances of our death. We sing songs like When We All Get To Heaven, with its flat-footed assurance that heaven will be worth whatever it takes to get there. We lean on the Spirituals for their earthy yearning for that time when we can steal away to Jesus or be caught up in the heaven-bound chariot that’s swinging low. We might even turn to Natalie Sleeth’s Hymn of Promise that frames our hope in the cycles of death and life found within nature. Hymn of Promise is a hymn that identifies us as people of the resurrection when we sing “In our end is our beginning, in our time infinity, in our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity. In our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” Yes! we are people of hope because we are people of the resurrection.

The theologian in my left ear and the pastor in my right are unified that this belief in the resurrection is central to our faith, and to our hope. And it is ultimately the words of Jesus, the Christ, the one whose followers we are, it is those words that sustain this hope of eternal life beyond death. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he had not yet been crucified. His raising of Lazarus from the dead was a precursor for what he was soon to demonstrate that life and death are a divine cycle where one yields to the other. Yes, there is much about this cycle that remains a mystery. Science has proved and keeps probing, making discoveries at a painfully slow rate. But what if the eternal realities are such that there are no instruments to measure them? We look through a glass dimly as we peer into eternity. Our finite human eyes don’t have the capacity to see into infinity. But our faith – our faith, given to us by God – our faith gives us the capacity to receive the words of Jesus who says, “do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many dwelling places, and I am going there to prepare a place for you. I will come back and take you to be with me that where I am you will be there also.” Our God-given faith gives us the capacity to believe the witness of the biblical accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus who claimed I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. He asks us today as he asked Martha, Do you believe this?

May God grant us the faith of eternal proportions, faith to trust in a God who, in Jesus Christ, lived in death even as he died in life; faith to believe that in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, and we are not alone. Amen.