What if you are a child and have lost a loved one – through death, departure, divorce or deployment – and it's the first Christmas without that person? You're sad, confused and scared.
"Through our baptism, we promise to surround our children with a community of love and forgiveness," said the Rev. Melanie C. Gordon, director of ministry with children with Discipleship Ministries. "We are that community."
Gordon and the Rev. Leanne Hadley, founder of "A Time for Children" and an elder in The United Methodist Church, recently gave suggestions on how to help children deal with crisis and tragedy. These suggestions are adaptable as you work with children in the church setting during the holiday season.
- Support one another as you serve and minister to children.
- Pray with children. Simple prayers like: "Dear God, help and bless ____(child's name)____. Guard him/her all with your care. Amen."
- Reassure children as you listen to their fears. It is important and reasonable to validate their feelings while keeping a positive outlook on the future.
- Listen to children as they tell you how they feel. Sometimes, this will not be with words. Drawing a picture may allow them to express feelings without words.
- Share your own feelings, letting them know it's normal and OK to be afraid of what they don't understand. Fear is a part of the human condition, and it is appropriate to affirm feelings of fear.
- Provide structure through routine and activity. Routines and activities help regain a sense of control and security when so much feels out of control.
- Make objects that encourage play. Children learn through play and often use actions rather than words to express their fears or anxieties.
- Encourage children to draw or write whatever comes to their minds or give them a question or topic to draw about. Follow up by listening to what they may have to say about how they are feeling. Let them talk about their loved one and listen without any judgment.
- Validate their feelings with ongoing communication. Most importantly, end each conversation on a positive note by assuring children of God's love. Scripture, like "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" or "God is a safe place to hide, ready to help when we need him," can bring children comfort.
"Create a sacred space where God can join us and heal these children," Hadley said. "Trust that he will fill the space and bring his peace."
Remember too, that for a young child, the loss of a beloved pet can be a source of great sadness.
Anna James, a mom of two, remembered when the family dog died, her 2- and 4-year-old sons were very sad.
"For them, that Labrador retriever was most definitely a family member," she said. "The dog had been in their lives every day since they were born. When she died, they grieved."
During the holidays, patience and understanding will go a long way in helping children dealing with loss. Be ready to listen with love.
Polly House is a freelance editor and writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. She wrote this story while serving as editorial assistant for Interpreter.
Portions of this article were adapted from a blog post and video chat by the Rev. Melanie Gordon, director of ministry with children, Discipleship Ministries, and the Rev. Leanne Hadley, founder of "A Time for Children," who provides mentoring to churches who are intentionally creating holistic ministries for children.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, November–December, 2017.