Death and grief
How can we prepare ourselves to help our children and young people if someone they know becomes very ill or dies?
Many of our kids and teens will experience someone they know dying. How can we support them if there is something they are fearful of or something they are facing?
There are some great organisations offering information and practical help. For example:
- Cruse Bereavement Care has a section on their website to help children and young people with grief.
- Many charities also have advice on their websites for how to tell children someone is dying, for example, this from Sue Ryder
- Child Bereavement UK has a useful download here giving advice on supporting children who are fearful or bereaved
- Originally written in the pandemic, Winston’s Wish has a helpful article here talking about how to help children and young people if they are unable to attend a funeral.
- The Diocese of Gloucester has a download here exploring how grief affects children at different ages, together with some resource recommendations, as well as ideas for remembering someone who has died. You can download a suggested service to use at home from this page if you are unable to go to the funeral.
- At the end of this article, we have put a list of organisations that may be able to help, together with some books and resources recommended to us by children’s pastors.
But as Christians, we also want to coach our children spiritually through these things. There is no easy way to do this, and every family’s situation will be unique. So we have put together a toolbox of ideas that you might be able to draw on in the days and weeks ahead. Some may be helpful, some not. But our prayer is that you are able to help your children connect with God and find comfort with Him however you and they are feeling.
Help children and young people manage their fear
Seeing a friend or relative very ill or dying can be frightening. So how can we help our children when they are scared?
For some ideas on how to do this, we have a post here that looks at five ways we can help our children and teens connect with and learn from God so that they are able to manage their fears hand in hand with him.
Creating windows is a simple tool we can use to help our children and young people see how our relationship with God works. Our children and young people may be facing situations they have never faced before. If they can see how we cope, it will give them ideas of things that might help them.
When you spot something that you think your child might need help with, you can deliberately create a window into how you cope. For example, if they are fearful about death, you might mention what helped you when you were afraid that grandma might get ill. Allow them to see you cry if you are grieving, or sit with you while you chat to God about what’s happening.
For more about creating windows see our ‘key tool’ post.
Find out more with curious questions
You may be aware that your child is struggling, but they aren’t telling you what is wrong. Curious questions are simply a way to help you discover what is on their heart. They are open-ended questions or statements that help to start a conversation which you then follow with further questions or statements. Think of them as clues that you both follow to get to the heart of the matter. For example:
- You seem to be feeling worried. Is that true?
- What are you afraid might happen?
- Does it feel like this or more like this?
- What happened to make you feel that way?
- Tell me more about that.
- What would happen if … ?
Once you think you understand what is going on, you then summarise it for them in a way they will understand and affirm their feelings.
For more about curious questions, and other tools to help you draw close to your kids’ hearts, see chapter 25 of ‘Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus’.
Give them a foundation of truth for them to hold on to when things get tough
You might want to start preparing your children for what might happen. Depending on their age and personality, you might want to consider:
Exploring the biblical truth about death and dying: for Christians, death is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a wonderful eternity spent with Jesus, where everyone who has chosen to follow Jesus will be together. There’s a helpful article here from Growing Faith and another here from Minno, both of which set out some key biblical truths about death and heaven that might be useful.
Read a little bit of how the Bible talks about heaven: for example, John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 2:9-10; Philippians 3:20; Revelation 21:4.
Remember the big picture of who God is. When we are in a crisis, or trouble strikes, it can be easy for us only to see the things that don’t make sense about God. For example, why didn’t He protect grandma, or is God in control? It can be helpful to take a step back and talk about the truths we know about God so we remember the big picture of who God is and why he can be trusted, even when things don’t make sense. Find a way to do this that works for your family. This could be by exploring Bible stories and seeing what each one teaches us about God, or researching the names of God, or sharing stories of things you’ve seen and heard of God doing.
Let them know that it is normal to experience a huge range of emotions when someone dies and that no-one’s experience will be exactly like anyone else’s. It may be helpful for some children and young people to understand more about the impact of grief so they can recognise that their feelings and ups and downs are normal: see, for example, this post from Young Minds.
Answer their questions well
Children and young people might have some very big questions about death and God, and you might not have easy answers. However, Parenting for Faith has a simple four step process that will help you explore any question well. You can see more about it here, or just briefly the steps are:
- Ask: what do you think? (to clarify the question and see what your child is thinking)
- Ask: what do we know? (What truth do we know from the Bible, our experiences of God or other wise people, for example)
- Ask: what do we NOT know? (Things we’re not sure about, including things the Bible isn’t clear on or which we just don’t know)
- Share: how you answer the question yourself (to give your child a window into how they might decide to deal with it)
Connect them (and yourself) to God
Sometimes we can be so stressed or anxious that we forget to connect directly to God to receive what he is longing to give us. Parenting for Faith’s chat and catch tool helps children connect directly with God in prayer without an adult’s help. If your child is struggling to connect with God, session 7 of the Parenting for Faith course describes a simple model of prayer ministry you can use at home with your children and teens. Some children may find that worshipping, walking, dancing, writing or drawing also help them connect.
If you are facing the serious illness or death of someone you know, it might be helpful to think now about what your family might need. Things to think about might include:
- What ideas you might want to introduce them to now
- How you would tell your children if a someone they know became very ill
- If you are unable to visit the person who is ill or dying, how you could help your children be in touch or understand what is happening
- How you would explain that someone has died
- How you might mark a funeral if you weren’t able to be there
- Who or what might be able to help you support your children and yourselves
Together at Home has created a free, downloadable resource to help children and their families say goodbye to someone they love which has some ideas that you might find useful.
Organisations that may be helpful
- Child Bereavement UK supports families and educates professionals both when a baby or child of any age dies or is dying, and when a child is facing bereavement.
- Winston’s Wish supports bereaved children, their families and the professionals who support them.
- Care for the Family provides a range of support services for people who have been bereaved.
- The Good Grief Trust: an online bereavement support website, offering a range of information and signposting to other places of support.
- SeeSaw was established in 2000 to meet the needs of bereaved children and young people in Oxfordshire and has a great range of downloadable resources for parents and professionals on their website
- The Compassionate Friends is a charitable organisation of bereaved parents, siblings and grandparents dedicated to the support and care of other similarly bereaved family members.
- Winston’s Wish have a dedicated website for young people who have been bereaved which has advice as well as stories from young people about their experiences.
- Cruse UK offers support, advice and information to children, young people and adults when someone dies.
- Hope Again is the youth website of Cruse UK.
- Your local hospice may be able to offer support or signpost you to other organisations.
- The Courage Foundation offers bereaved families therapy through providing days out, weekends away and annual passes to fun and exciting attractions around the country
Books and other resources
- Wirral CAMHS has produced a guide for supporting children with severe learning disabilities with bereavement and grief
- ‘Jesus still loves Joe’ by Victoria Beech and the Paediatric Chaplaincy Network explores a young child’s experience of being a bereaved sibling and how important it is for such children to know that God loves them no matter how they feel. You can buy the book, or watch it online, narrated by Bear Grylls, here.
- ‘Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine’ by Diana Crossley: a hardback activity book offering practical and sensitive support for bereaved younger children.
- ‘Michael Rosen’s Sad Book’ by Michael Rosen explains sadness and grief in a way that children can understand.
- Waterbugs and Dragonflies’ by Doris Stickney: a simple story to help explain death, and the hope after death, for young children. You can see it read on YouTube here.
- ‘Badger’s Parting Gift’ by Susan Varley: a beautifully illustrated story about an old badger who knows he is about to die and how he helps his friends come to terms with their loss. Child Bereavement UK has produced a reading guide to help those reading this story with children.
- ‘Sad isn’t Bad: a Good-Grief Guidebook for Kids Dealing with Loss’ by Michaealene Mundy helps children to process their loss and learn to grieve well.
- ‘Tapestry’ by Bob Hartman and Susie Poole teaches young children about heaven through the story of Danny, whose grandad has died. This is currently difficult to find although there are second hand copies available, or churches may have copies.
- ‘Always and Forever’ by Alan Durant and Debi Gliori: a gentle story about friends coming to term’s with the loss of someone they loved. You can see the book read outloud here.
- ‘When Someone Dies: 101 Ways to Help you Cope’ by Bill Merrington: written by an Anglican priest, it contains short ideas and activities for children who are grieving.
Simon Parry has written an album of songs specially written for children and families dealing with grief.
Messy Church has a book called ‘Seriously Messy’ which talks about bereavement and loss; some of the crafts and activities suggested might be helpful.
In an episode of the Parenting for Faith podcast, Rachel interviewed a minister about how he explains death to children, especially when you’re unsure of their faith and family situation.