“My great-grandpa is dying,” she said softly as the class gathered for prayer. “I pray that he goes to be with Jesus soon.”
The class hushed. Children sat attentively, waiting for what would come next. What to say? How to pray? Here in the little sanctuary of our classroom, grief sat beside us in the circle.
In most churches, children’s ministry has been in full swing for two months now, giving Sunday-school teachers and small-group leaders ample time to encounter the grief children are bringing with them to church. November is National Children’s Grief Awareness month, a great time to assess how we welcome those in pain into our midst.
Consider four ways to help grieving children into your congregation, offering them space to grieve their losses and find comfort and hope in Jesus.
1. Create Space
When we plan children’s ministry programs, we often want to infuse activities with childlike energy. From catchy songs to games and activities that get the blood flowing, we engage children with a high-octane version of the gospel. Children grieve differently than adults do, and those kinds of activities may work well for some as a happy distraction from their pain. But especially in the early season of their loss, grieving children may crave more opportunity for quiet and reflection—not in exclusion from the wider group, but in the midst of it.
As you evaluate your Sunday-school classes and special activities, ask yourself: Is there space for contemplation, for wondering, or for questions that don’t have answers? How might a grieving child respond to the pace and volume of this event? Would she feel overwhelmed? What is the energy arc of our time together, and how might a grieving child find relief? As we create space, we communicate to our children that all of their emotions are welcome in God’s presence and in ours.
2. Talk to God
We model for our children the role prayer plays in our lives, especially when times are hard. In children’s ministry, we reflect our dependence on God as we model the centrality of prayer in our times together. As adults we know that questions about loss often can’t be answered, but God invites us to bring all of our grief to him anyway. As we integrate prayer, we teach children that communion with God is more than transactional, that we find solace in communicating with God even when life confounds us.
We model for our children the role prayer plays in our lives, especially when times are hard.
As you shape a grieving space for children under your ministry care, offer them many opportunities to express their grief in prayer. Include prayer and prayer requests in your Sunday school’s activities. Have children share their requests with you quietly or write them down.
Give space for silent prayer—for both talking to and listening to God. Remember that no request is too outlandish. God cares about our sorrows large and small. From lost soccer games to pet deaths, family divorces to grandparent death, we can honor all as genuine expressions of grief. As we do, we model for our children that Jesus is the friend who sticks closer than a brother, walking with us through sorrow, as we entrust ourselves and those we love to him.
3. Watch Your Language
For many years in children’s ministry, I encouraged kids to bring coloring pages and crafts “home to mom and dad.” That is, until my husband died, and I realized how that instruction might fall on my daughter’s ears. Unless she brought her craft to the cemetery, there’d be no way to deliver it to the one who, in her grief, she wanted most to see it.
Death opened my eyes to the ways we talk about family in the church, and my grief experience invited me to both choose my words more carefully and expand my vocabulary for other grieving children.
As you seek to welcome hurting children to your ministries, get to know their families.
As you seek to welcome hurting children to your ministries, get to know their families. Ask questions of the adults who come to drop them off and pick them up. When you understand the environment and relationships in which a child circulates most of the week, you can use language that doesn’t inadvertently hurt.
Grieving children wrestle with identity questions as they develop and grow, whether they experience the death of a parent or a divorce in their family. Our inclusive language reminds them that we notice and care about these changes. “Tell your memory verse to your grandma this week” lets a child know that we see and know her story, and in so doing, we signal that she also belongs to us as God’s family.
4. Celebrate the Family of God
We know that including secular holidays like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in church celebrations can hurt adults in our congregations who’ve experienced painful relationships or loss. The same is true for grieving children. While we know that God ordained the family as the place where his good truths would first take root in our lives, God creates a new family in the church.
After a loss, grieving children need that kind of family more than ever to help them thrive. In the church, we are reminded that God is father to the fatherless. In the church, our hopes are realized for a family that death cannot destroy. In the church, Jesus offers himself to us as the better brother, fully acquainted with our grief and triumphant over sorrow.
As you create grief-aware spaces in your children’s ministry, honestly evaluate which family you’re celebrating. Consider swapping out an earthly-family themed event for a spiritual-family activity instead. Emphasize mentoring in your programs. Use small groups to enhance a sense of sisterhood and brotherhood in the gospel. Foster intergenerational friendships. Show children through word and deed the beauty that God offers us in the communion of saints.
As we reshape our language to include loss and make space for the myriad emotions that come with grief, we will communicate these great truths to the littlest ones in our care. In a season of unrest and deep sadness, we will reflect the very best of the family of God through our attentiveness, sensitivity, and faithful support.