By Jennifer Abbatacola
We are continuing our two-part series on comforting children when they grieve. Although these are the things I learned when my children lost their father in the summer of 2017, they are practical for any loss in a child’s life … the loss of a friend, a pet, a grandparent and even divorce. In some losses, less time may be needed to help your child grieve.
Even two years later, I am still using the three choices I made that summer. I shared Choice #1: Time in the previous post. Today I share Choices #2 and #3.
Choice #2: Patience
Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
A grieving child requires patience. The truth is you will hear the same story again and again. You must listen. The truth is, you may not hear anything but quiet cries. Sometimes children don’t know what to say. Sometimes grieving children just need to cry. They are hurt and it’s so deep they don’t have words.
It is during this time that your patience becomes the rod that protects them. They need the safety of your patience to protect them in their insecurities, their questions, their tears, and their confusion as they test out how they need to process the change that is happening to them. Patience is another way that you can create space around your child and let them seek to understand their circumstances as well as the God who allowed them to be hurting. My grandma was not able to offer this to her children and it resulted in their hearts being put in harm's way--and thus causing damage to their life long relationships. Your patience is the fruit of your persistence of doing good, and that will protect their grieving heart.
There are moments of grief with children when they have words and you do not. I remember times when I had nothing left to give and nothing left to say so I did the only thing I could – I sent them to the Word of God. My only words for them were “I don’t know what to say so all I can do is ask the Holy Spirit to help you. Please go to Him and His Word. He will help you.” And He did.
There will be a time when they will have learned to protect their own hearts, but that time is not when they are most vulnerable. They will need you to help and they will need you to be patient while they figure it out. And you will have to watch them figure it out over and over. But your faithfulness to them will be a healing example of God’s faithfulness that they will allow them to reap healthy relationships for the rest of their lives.
James 1:19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.
The third and final step in comforting a child is focus. Focus is what you need in order to be quick to hear as James says. It doesn’t come naturally. It is much easier to be slow to hear, fast to speak--and on to my own needs. When we are grieving, when I am grieving, it is the most difficult choice to make – the choice to remain focused.
There were times when being quick to speak was all I wanted to do. I wanted to say, “Hey, I’m grieving too. I just lost the only man that ever loved me,” or, “You’ll get married and leave and I’ll be here alone.“ I was so tired (and some days I still am) I would want to shut it all down and go to sleep. But I would quickly bring my eyes back to their eyes and focus my thoughts on them so I could engage in their process. We must listen to what our children are saying and we must ask them good questions. Both require focus.
What I found in our talks on the stairs, the deck, the couch, their beds when I would focus as the scripture asks, is that healing was taking place for my children and the Lord was allowing me to participate and watch Him work in the lives of my most precious people. I would ask them questions about what they were saying. Questions like, “Could you tell me more about that? How did that make you feel? Why do you feel that way? What Scripture are you thinking about? Why does that scare you? What are you dreaming about? How are you sleeping? How can I help you? How can I be a better mother?”
In this pattern of comfort, I was giving my children freedom and permission to speak openly about their feelings. I was giving clear signals that I was listening. With my verbals and non-verbals, they received the message, “It is safe for me to process through what I don’t understand.”
I believe my life and my family’s lives are perfectly orchestrated by the Lord. Nothing is a mistake. Nothing by chance. If I believe that about God’s choices, then it is His choice that our family--and individual-- experience, includes walking through grief.
Grief requires comfort. God made it that way. All three: the loss, the grief, and the comfort must be respected. When Marc died, I thought the goal was to heal. I was wrong. The goal was to experience the loss, the grief and the comfort the Lord orchestrated for me. I may never fully heal but that doesn’t mean I’m not healthy. (2 Corinthians 12:9 “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”)
The reaction to loss is grief. The reaction to grief should be comfort. I say, “should be,” because not every child has been blessed to receive comfort for their grief. God didn’t intend for us to grieve alone, and more so for our children who are still learning how to maneuver the world. But scripture is clear, God will always be present in the absence (and presence) of a patient, focused parent.
When we comfort with a clear strategy, we are showing respect for our children. They are valued and our time, patience and focus affirm this. I was never trying to make my children feel valued. That’s manipulation. My children are valued and because of this, their grief journey needs to be respected. Time, patience and focus merely reflect what is already true.
It’s been a little more than two years since Marc died. Every milestone is another wave of grief for my children who require comfort. No wailing. No throwing things. Just quiet talking. Processing. Thinking. Feeling. Tears. It’s a marathon kind of journey done in an honest, gentle way with time, patience and focus. It’s not tricky, but it’s not easy either.