“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
These two words show Jesus cutting to the heart of humanity. This shortest verse in the Bible points us to Christ’s humanity and empathy. As parents, grandparents, pastors, teachers, neighbors, aunts, uncles and friends, have you considered how these two weighty words seek to minister to the heart of children?
Jesus wept alongside Martha and Mary when he came upon Lazarus, who had died. Christ knew that he would, in mere moments, raise Lazarus from the dead. He also knew that death, for the faithful, is a blessing. Yet he did not meet the grieving with cold knowledge, but with emotion. His shedding of tears showed Martha, Mary and the others present that they were not alone in their grief.
Children, too, experience grief and loss. Perhaps it’s the loss of a pet, or maybe the loss of a loved one. How can we take on Christ’s model of caring, empathy and sympathy as we speak to children about grief and loss? Here are a couple of suggestions.
Use simple, concrete words when you explain tough situations that involve grief and loss, especially with young children. Each situation of loss looks different and children will grasp grief in their own way. You may explain to a 5 year old that Grandma has died. Then, they simply walk away and play with their toys again seeming completely untouched by the news. It may not be until weeks later as they are crying into their peanut butter and jelly sandwich that you realize that this is what grief looks like for them. Invite them to ask questions and offer answers from the scriptures, and keep the conversation brief, concrete and factual. Avoid sharing too many details that may be confusing or disturbing to a child.
Remember that heartache doesn’t only mean weeping. Grief in the life of a child may manifest as anger, bullying, a loss of appetite, defiance, anxiety, loss of interest in things they typically enjoy, as well as in tears. Be sensitive to these behaviors and come alongside children in their grief.
Grief in the life of a child may manifest as anger, bullying, a loss of appetite, defiance, anxiety, loss of interest in things they typically enjoy, as well as in tears.
Model for your child and for children around you what grieving with hope looks like. Share stories about the loved one who died. If the person was in Christ, rejoice in the hope of heaven that we will see them again. Share the hope of heaven with a child using a simple gospel illustration such as the three circles.
For children, the opportunities to have conversations about hope or to talk through how they are feeling about the loss come most naturally through play. Set aside time to build a block tower or color a picture together with your child, and invite them to share openly with you.
The assurance of Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary is what points us to heaven and the joy-filled reunion we will have with those who are Christ followers. We know Christ’s character is trustworthy and true. Show your children what it means to turn our hearts towards heaven. Encourage them with gospel-saturated truths from the scriptures, and help point their eyes towards heaven as you address their tears and pain.
JC Ryle in his sermon to children entitled, No More Crying reminds us, “Beloved children, remember my parting words. The way to get through the world with the least possible crying is to read the Bible, believe the Bible, pray over the Bible, and live by the Bible.”
As we witness Jesus greet the grieving in John 11, we gain a glimpse into his compassion towards the brokenhearted. Our Savior modeled for us how we can walk alongside the broken by bearing one another’s burdens through caring, empathy, and sympathy. Consider how you can live out these traits as you comfort suffering little ones.
Recommended resources on addressing grief and loss with children: