At 11 years old, my world changed the moment I heard my mom’s parents had been diagnosed with cancer. I realized two of the people I loved most in the world might not be there much longer. We lost both of my grandparents later that year.
I carried my grief into junior high like an overstuffed backpack, unsure how to cope. Unsure how to reconcile this loss with the faith I grew up with. Did God really care? Was it worth it to live for Him if He didn’t protect me from pain? With the support of my family, friends, and youth leaders, I eventually found healing and a stronger faith.
Maybe you’re watching your child grieve and wondering how to help them. You may even be working through your own grief at the same time. I hope these five suggestions can guide you as you navigate how to help your grieving child.
1. Share memories of your loved one.
Your loved one was and always will be an important part of your lives. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person you lost. Having these discussions can stir up feelings of sadness, but they also create opportunities for you to process your grief together and remember the blessing this person was to your family.
Give your child opportunities to share favorite memories of their loved one. It may be helpful to write out these memories to keep privately, share with others, or place in the casket at the funeral. As a preteen, it was healing for me to collect pictures and stories from my family members in order to create a memory book of my grandparents.
Over the years, my parents helped my brother and I treasure the impact our grandparents had on our lives by sharing stories, revisiting favorite places, and watching home videos. Grief and gratitude for the lost loved one will spring up throughout your lives, so make sure you create ongoing opportunities. For example, we would put flowers on my grandparents’ grave each May. Afterward, we would drive around the town where my mom grew up and stop at a favorite lunch spot.
2. Grieve with and in front of your child.
In his book, Straight Talk About Death for Teenagers, Earl Grollman writes: “Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”
It can be easy to shame yourself for grieving, especially in front of the little people you most want to be strong for. But it’s important to allow yourself time to grieve. You wouldn’t apologize for the pain of a broken leg or force it to heal faster. Your emotional wounds need that same grace and patience.
As much as you can, be authentic with your children. Model that it is OK to feel sad, angry, or confused. Even Jesus wept with his friends when Lazarus died (see John 11). Mourn the loss with your kids, and let them see you wrestle with your grief. Let this be a time to comfort and care for one another. The way you walk with God through suffering can teach your kids what it means to grieve as those who have hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
3. Remember everyone grieves differently.
Some kids grieve best if they get to be part of the process (i.e. coming with you to sort through their loved one’s belongings). Others will feel better going on a nature walk or doing something else that takes their mind off the situation. Your kids may even act out more than usual as an expression of the pain that they feel.
Just as you’re going through so many emotions in a day, remember your child is learning to understand and express their conflicting emotions as well. Their needs may change from one moment to the next, so do your best to be patient and listen for those underlying needs.
Teach your grieving child to talk about their feelings with people they trust. Show them how to share their feelings with God through prayer and journaling. Consider reading Psalms 40 and 42 for examples of King David bringing his sadness and fears to the Lord. Encourage healthy outlets for your kids to express their hurt and anger, whether that’s running around outside, screaming into a pillow, or painting what they feel.
4. Be present for your grieving child—even when it’s hard.
As you respond to the loss in front of you, quality time could get put on the back burner—but your family needs it more than ever. Schedule one-on-one time with each of your kids, whether it’s an after-school snack, a junior high football game, or a trip to the mall.
When your child comes to you with a heavy heart, help carry it as our Father does for us (Psalm 62:8). You don’t have to take away your child’s grief or protect them from their feelings. All you need to do is offer your loving presence as you sit, listen, and relate. When you’re looking for words to say, let Scripture and the Holy Spirit guide you (John 16:13).
Walking through grief with your child is a heavy burden to bear, but you don’t need to walk alone. Sometimes, the one grieving with them will be a sibling, a teacher, or a youth leader. When my grandma passed away, her neighbor hugged me and spoke comforting words that I will always remember.
5. Caring for your grieving child means caring for yourself, too.
Walking through grief with your child will not be easy. Just as your grieving child seeks you for comfort, you need to seek your own support system. Whether it’s other family members, trusted friends and church members, or a support group like GriefShare. Many people find it helpful to have a counselor guide them through the grieving process. Consult your pastor for recommendations on Christian counseling agencies or biblical counselors within your church.
When you’re grieving, it can be hard to find motivation for tasks like sleeping, eating, and doing the dishes. Sometimes, helping your grieving child looks like taking a nap and making yourself a sandwich. Your child will likely form coping skills similar to yours, so remember to treat yourself with the same gentleness and love you give them each day. You won’t be perfect, so go easy on yourself and ask for help when you need it.
Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Alex McMurray is a writing intern for FamilyLife at Cru headquarters in Orlando. She graduated from Cedarville University with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a concentration in child and family studies. She grew up in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania with her parents and older brother. In her free time, she enjoys going on outdoor adventures with her friends and playing card games.