By S. Joseph Kidder and Natalie Dorland
When children experience grief, they display various emotions, becoming sad, scared, anxious, embarrassed, and even depressed. Traumatic losses leave children emotionally wounded, and some go through an identity crisis—all the while exhibiting normal parts of the agonizing grief process.1 This is where the church plays a crucial role in the healing of a child who is grieving. Learning from the example of Jesus, church pastors, and members alike can aid in the healing and long-term spiritual health of a child who has experienced a significant loss.
REVEALING GOD’S LOVE
Professional counselors are the most qualified individuals to help children deal with grief and trauma after a significant loss. However, too often church members and pastors alike assume that the counselor will take care of the problem, so they don’t need to worry about it. Yet a child’s grief does not end after one hour of counseling per week. They still grieve at home, school, and church. This gives the pastor a unique opportunity to introduce Jesus as a personal Savior and Friend, as One who comforts them through the sad moments of life. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet he did not sin.” Hebrews 4:15, NIV
As a spiritual leader, you must teach the children in your church about God’s power, His love, forgiveness, strength and that He alone is the Source they should turn to when they are sad. Teach them how to pray when they feel depressed or scared. Reveal God’s love in how you treat them and help them recognize that Jesus is the Safe Place they can turn to when they feel sad.
JESUS’ OWN GRIEF
While on earth, Jesus confronted grief in a variety of ways. By looking at examples from His ministry, we can learn how Jesus dealt with pain and heartache, as well as ways to guide children through their own grief.
Jesus, like most of us, experienced multiple losses during His life on earth. He witnessed how strict Roman rule affected families around Him. He felt pain seeing the tormented life of individuals filled with demons. Jesus likely lost His earthly father, Joseph, while he was a young man. His cousin, John the Baptist, was killed tragically as well. Jesus’ tears were significant enough to be recorded at Lazarus’ death.
Jesus was not afraid to show emotion when he received tragic news. He cried, took time to be alone, and spent hours in prayer.2 By crying visibly in front of others, Jesus showed that expressing sadness is normal and an important part of the grieving process. His expression of grief permitted others to show their sadness as well. Sharing your own grief in calm, responsible, appropriate ways shows a child that expressing grief is a normal and acceptable response to what has happened.3
Let children know that it is okay for them to cry when they are sad and miss the person who is now absent from their life.4 “God wants people to be honest with Him about their feelings.”5 Do not try to stifle them, tell them to be quiet, or ask them not to cry. Instead, give them a hug, tell them you are sad too, sit with them while they cry, offer a stuffed animal for them to squeeze, and tissue for them to dry their face with.6 Share with them this story and tell them how Jesus cried when His friend died. But also remind them that Jesus raised Lazarus from death, and that we have hope that someday Jesus will raise all our friends from death as well.
While not as obvious as the death of a loved one, children often experience grief when a huge life change happens, such as moving to a new city. They naturally miss their old playmates, are scared of attending a new school and making new friends, and struggle with the loss of stability that comes with a big move. For a child struggling with an upcoming move, or one who has recently moved to your church or school and misses their old home, remind them that Jesus moved as a child too! Not only did he move from one city to another, but from one country to another! He was born in Bethlehem, spent time as a young child in Egypt (Matthew 2), and then was raised in Nazareth- three completely different cultural communities. One near a big city, one in a
foreign country, and the last in a country village. Take time to introduce a new child in your church to other children, invite their families and others to your home for a Sabbath meal. Be intentional about making new connections possible.
If you know anyone in the town they are moving to, contact them and ask them to welcome the new family, helping introduce them to a new school or church in the area. Ask the child to tell you what upcoming change they are excited about and rejoice with them over their new circumstances. Help them look for the positive parts of change in their lives and make a list or draw a picture of what that will be like!
THE HEALING MINISTRY OF JESUS
Jesus’ ministry to children and His own response to grief while on earth gives the best example of how to treat children who are grieving.
1. HIS MINISTRY OF CARE AND LOVE
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” Psalm 56:8 (NLT)
By metaphorically keeping our tears in a bottle God remembers the pain and sorrows we have been through. Remind children that God knows every loss they have experienced, and He has seen each tear on their cheek. Explain to children that God is there to comfort them and bring them to happiness again.
Our tears are not forgotten by God. Revelation 21:4 reminds us that through His power, there will one day be no more death, crying, mourning or pain, for the old order of things will pass away. This heavenly promise is also a reminder that healing can be experienced on earth as well, and with Jesus’ healing power, children will experience joy again on this earth too.7
2. HIS MINISTRY OF HELPING AND HEALING
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted…” Luke 4:18-19 (Christian Standard Bible)
Jesus, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit, was able to heal others both physically and spiritually while on earth. Today Jesus still empowers church members as they minister to the brokenhearted and works with Him to heal those who are grieving.8
3. HIS MINISTRY OF FAITH AND HOPE
“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10
Helping children understand that they aren’t alone in their spiritual journey is essential. Jesus is present with them, the Holy Spirit will continue to guide them, and the Father always loves them. And though they have suffered a great loss, God wants them to have an abundant life even after experiencing deep pain. God’s intention is for children to move from just surviving pain and disappointment to living a thriving, fulfilling and meaningful life.
Young people are often pushed aside when a major loss takes place and their emotional experience is forgotten by the grieving adults around them. Pastors have a responsibility to care for the needs of grieving children just as much as for the adults in their church. There are many examples from the life of Jesus that are helpful in learning how to effectively minister to children.
JESUS TREATMENT OF CHILDREN
Jesus treated children with as much respect as any adult He encountered. He didn’t talk to them as if they could not understand. There is no better standard of how to treat children than Jesus’ example of compassion, kindness and love. Jesus knew the tender heart of a child and was inclusive of them. When the disciples pushed the children away Jesus famously said in Mark 10:13-15:
“And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
The disciples’ rejection of the children likely caused them pain. No one likes feeling rejected or pushed away. Jesus noticed the children’s sadness and accepted them, scolding the disciples for sending them away. “And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” Mark 10:16, ESV. In this moment Jesus showed attentiveness, care, affection, love, and protection as He showed the children that they were valuable to Him.
The Greek word for “bringing children” to Jesus is prosphero. It suggests they brought the children to Jesus for a dedication or special blessing from Him. The disciples, however, did not want this. They felt Jesus had more important things to do with His time than attending to children!
To show a contrast between the disciples’ attitudes and Jesus’ perspective, Mark uses an intense word for Jesus’ blessing. The Greek indicates that Jesus “fervently/passionately blessed them.” This word shows that Jesus was making a powerful statement, as if to say: “This is an important part of my work: paying attention to children.”9
When children grieve, they often show their emotions in dramatic ways, such as crying. Adults instinctively want to calm these outward displays of emotion, but Jesus taught us that going through the process of grieving is normal. After Lazarus’ death, Jesus is found weeping in John 11. Even though the Creator of the universe knew in a few moments Lazarus would be raised from death, He still felt the emotions of grief. He gave permission for those around Him to grieve, and they saw how much He cared because He let himself cry.99
After John the Baptist, Jesus’ own relative, was beheaded while in prison, Jesus needed to be alone to grieve. Matthew 14:13 (ESV) says, “…he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself…” Even Jesus felt the pangs of loss and needed to grieve the loss of his relative. But what Jesus does next reveals one key to grief recovery that can be used to help children navigate the grief process and move on from a devastating loss.
What does Jesus do after taking time away? He ministers. He helps others. He healed people and fed the 5000! One healthy part of recovery is serving others and finding a purpose in life. Guiding children to do something meaningful helps them move on and find joy again.
FROM PAIN TO PEACE
Megan, a young girl in my (Natalie’s) previous church, had gone through significant childhood trauma and experienced multiple types of loss. No matter how many times she saw her counselor, she still needed God’s presence to help her cope. She wanted to trust God but was scared. Through the help of spiritual mentors like her Pathfinder leaders, grade schoolteacher, and pastors, she began to read the Bible for herself and discovered that Jesus also experienced grief and pain in His life. Megan learned that she could trust Him with her pain because she knew He could relate to what she was going through.
During one of our many meetings, she opened up about feeling pain from the lack of her father’s presence in her life, the grief from recently losing her grandfather, and the trauma she experienced as a result of abuse in early childhood. After we prayed together, she started sharing about her growing relationship with God and how He was helping her heal. She had learned to look to Jesus as her source of Comfort. He helped her grow out of a place of constant pain into a life of joy and hope for the future.
Whenever she was scared or sad, she learned to pray and claim God’s promises. Then she felt Jesus’ hugs and the presence of angels all around her. She learned to memorize scriptures like the Psalms, and hearing God’s voice through His Word speaking to her heart comforting her. I watched as her desire for God grew and rejoiced when she gave her heart to Jesus in baptism. God’s presence in her life transformed her from the inside out, and she now lives in the freedom God gave her from her grief, pain and trauma. She went on to minister to others by handing out books about Jesus to friends, neighbors and anyone she meets! She has dreams of being a missionary and sharing Jesus’ love and message of healing around the world.
Pastors have a responsibility to care for the needs of grieving children just as much as for the adults in their church. The church plays a crucial role in the healing of a child who has suffered loss. As we follow to the example of Jesus, church pastors and members are able to aid in the healing and long-term spiritual health of a child who is grieving.
1 Mental Health America. (2019). Bereavement and Grief: Mental Health America. https://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/ conditions/coping-loss-bereavement-and-grief.
2 John 11:32-36; Matthew 14:12-13. Alone time is an appropriate response to grief.
3 Mayo Clinic Staff. Helping Children Cope: Tips for Talking about Tragedy. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved on January 31, 2019, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/helping-children-cope/art-20047029.
4 Child Mind Institute. (2019). Helping Children Cope With Grief. https://childmind.org/guide/helping-children-cope-grief/. For more supporting information on this topic, see:
? Shonfeld, D. J., Quackenbush, M. (2009). After a Loved One Dies- How Children Grieve. New York Life Foundation. https://www. aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/Children-and-Disasters/Documents/After-a-Loved-One-Dies-English. pdf.
5 Jeffers, S. L., and Harold Ivan Smith. (2007). Finding a Sacred Oasis in Grief: a Resource Manual for Pastoral Care Givers. Oxford: Radcliffe, pp. 94.
6 Ehmke, RR., and Child Mind Institute. (n.d.).Helping Children Deal With Grief.” Child Mind Institute. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from https://childmind.org/article/helping-children-deal-grief/.
7 What Does It Mean That God Collets Our Tears in a Bottle? (n.d.). Retrieved May 5, 2016, from https://www.gotquestions.org/ what-happens-after-death.html.
8 Reese, R. A. Commentary on Luke 4:14-21. Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from https://www. workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2741.
9 Guzik, David. “Mark 10- Jesus Teaches on Marriage, Riches, and Service.” Enduring Word, August 5, 2019. https://enduringword. com/bible-commentary/mark-10/.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
S. Joseph Kidder, DMin is a Professor of Christian Ministry and Discipleship at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.
Natalie Dorland is an MDiv student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, USA.
This article was published as part of the 2021 Resource Book, “I Will Go With My Family: Unity in Community.” Click here to download a FREE digital copy of this article and more helpful resources.