The death of a child is the most heart-wrenching experience a parent can ever endure. Family and friends, while undoubtedly wishing to offer their comfort and support, generally don’t know where to begin in ministering during the midst of such a tragic situation. Due to this reality, we thought it would be beneficial to offer some practical, Christ-centered ways for family and friends to minister to their loved ones. The following suggestions are grounded in personal experience. While all families are different, we strongly believe these suggestions will help you to care for and comfort your loved ones in the wake of their devastating tragedy.
Walk softly near a broken heart. In the days, weeks, and even months following the death of a child, parents are in a state of shock and numbness. Their world has collapsed. Your willingness to surround them with love is the most important thing you can do. Initially it is very difficult for grieving parents to retain and process anything but the most basic ideas. Share with them the simple yet certain promises of God’s unfailing love for both them and their child. Speak about the hope of heaven. It is important to remember that all people grieve differently. Even the same person will grieve differently at different times. Sometimes they may need the presence of others, while at other times they may need time to themselves. As time passes, our grieving loved ones will be able to process more complex issues. Hopefully the information and resources provided on this website will help to address some of those issues. With all this in mind, we offer the following suggestions in ministering to your loved ones.
Acknowledge the Loss
Perhaps the greatest injustice anyone can do a grieving parent is to remain silent about their loss. Silence can be incredibly hurtful. Generally speaking, people remain silent for one of three reasons. The first reason is that people simply feel they don’t know what to say. Another reason people remain silent is because of their own discomfort. Finally, people remain silent in fear that their words may further upset the parent. Yet neglecting to acknowledge the loss can result in additional sorrow, causing parents to wonder if their situation is of any concern to the silent party. After our son died, it was incredibly meaningful even when people simply said, “I don’t know what to say, but I am so sorry for your loss.”
Parents treasure the memories of their child more than anything else. Because of this, most parents cherish conversations regarding their child. Often times, such conversations may result in tears being shed. However, there is no greater way to demonstrate your love for a grieving parent than through your willingness to converse, share, and reminisce about their child. This will hold true for the duration of the parent’s lifetime. My wife and I are very fortunate in that we are surrounded by friends and family who are always willing to talk about our son. Carter is talked about in our household on a daily basis. Because of this, the mention of his name now brings more smiles than tears. Great healing can be experienced when a parent is able to freely share their grief, memories, and love for their child with trusted friends and family members.
Your presence is more important than you can possibly imagine. This may mean different things based on your relationship with the parent. In some cases it may mean silently sitting with a parent late into the night, sharing in their tears. Or perhaps it means you are willing to prepare and deliver a meal. Or it might mean you are willing to write a letter. In most cases it doesn’t matter what you do. Simply doing something, anything, demonstrates your love, care, and concern.
Being present takes courage. In order to be present you must be willing to enter into a grief-filled and broken world. Remember, your loved one will now be living in that world for quite sometime. A true friend is willing to venture into that place, despite their own discomfort. God will use the love of such people as a means of healing. This being said, I do understand that grieving parents need time alone. However, I want to make sure this is not used as an excuse to avoid ministering to their very present needs.
The days and weeks following the death of a child are physically and mentally exhausting for parents. The grieving process literally consumes all of the body’s resources. From a very practical standpoint, one can be present in helping with the everyday tasks of life. This may include preparing meals, shoveling snow, running errands, or walking the dog. While these may seem to be simple tasks, they can be overwhelming for those struggling with such intense sorrow.
Finally, it may be that God is calling you to be present for a longer duration. The simple truth is that many will be present in the first few weeks. However, after the initial period, the majority of friends and family are forced to return to their regular life. Yet life will never return to normal for the parents. A new normal needs to be established, and that takes a long time. God may be calling you to be part of that process. He may want you to provide love, encouragement, and a shoulder to cry on for many years. If so, be faithful to that calling.
Perhaps the most effective means we have to minister to grieving loved ones is through prayer. God calls us to pray on their behalf. Be bold in praying. Ask God to begin healing their hearts, easing their sorrow, and filling them with the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Only God has the ability to truly mend a broken heart. In His timing, God will be faithful in answering your prayer. I never understood how powerful prayer could be until after our son’s death. We had so many people in our community praying for us. At times I could literally feel God’s strength supporting us as family and friends were faithful in praying on our behalf. God has given us prayer as a means to minister to our loved ones at any time, in any situation, and under any condition. God will use your prayers in restoring joy to the life of your loved ones.
Share God’s Word
Be bold in sharing God’s Word. After Carter died, our ultimate source of strength was anchored in the promises of Scripture. God uses His Word to convey His ever-present love to those who are enduring great sorrow. He uses His Word to remind us of His great love and tenderness for those little ones He has called home to be with Him. Through His Word He assures us that He will always be with us, even through the darkest of valleys. Search out God’s promises in scripture. Share those promises with those who are grieving. It isn’t necessary to preach a sermon. Simply offering to share one or two meaningful verses can be a vital source of strength to grieving parents.
Hope of Heaven
For our grieving loved ones, the certainty of heaven is undoubtedly the most wonderful promise in all of Scripture. The Bible tells us that when a child dies they did not cease to exist. Instead, it tells us that they are now living in the presence of their Heavenly Father. Furthermore, it tells us that those who place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ will experience a reunion with their child in heaven. This gives us such a powerful reason to view the future with hope. When we talk about Jesus Christ and the glories of heaven we can start to focus on the child’s gain as opposed to our loss. We can begin to understand that we do not grieve for our child, but instead we grieve a separation fromour child. Ultimately, the sting of death is dulled when one understands the separation from their child is temporary. Jesus Christ is in heaven, and there is no better place to be than in His presence. Please be bold in sharing the promise of heaven.
After Carter died, Heidi and I were surrounded by family, friends, and a community that ministered to us in many different ways, all of which were filled with great love and compassion. From our perspective, one of the greatest ministries we experienced was in receiving numerous letters and notes in the days, weeks, and months, following our son’s death. Often the notes were filled with memories of Carter, promises from Scripture, and the reassurance of an eternity with our son in heaven. Not only did these notes demonstrate that people loved us, but they also demonstrated that Carter was important in their lives as well. They acknowledged our loss and were showing us they were grieving with us. Notes and letters can be reread. During the darkest times I read those letters over and over and over. They served as a lifeline to me when waters of grief felt overwhelming.
What Not to Do
Finally, I believe it is necessary to list a few things that should never be said or done in interacting with someone who has experienced the death of a child. While these things may be done with the best intentions, they almost always result in increased heartache. Unfortunately, these approaches are practiced far too often:
Don’t Rush the Grieving Process: The grieving period following the death of a child takes years, not weeks or months. Understand that while your loved one is still the same person, they will never return to normal. Instead a new normal will form in their life, and this takes time. Always be willing to include and invite them to participate in activities, but be understanding when they may not be up to participating in such activities.
Don’t Try to Replace the Child: I actually had someone suggest to me that I could simply have another son. I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to respond. Each child is a unique God-created individual that can never be replaced. This also applies to a pre-born child. Scripture teaches us that the death of a pre-born child is the death of a unique person. Never minimize such an experience or suggest any child can be replaced.
Don’t Offer Incorrect Theology: Often this is done as a quick attempt to offer soothing words to a broken heart. After Carter’s death, many people said to me, “God must have needed another little angel in heaven.” Biblically speaking, this is wrong at every possible level. While such statements may offer temporary comfort, they are not based on God’s Word and will ultimately result in increased misunderstanding and heartache.
Never Suggest the Death of a Child was “For the Better”: No death is good, especially the death of a child. God did not design us for death. He designed us for life in His presence. That’s why he sent His son, Jesus Christ, to earth. He came in order to solve the problem of death and to offer a means for us to be reconciled with God. While God can use the death of a child to bring about great good, that child’s death itself is never good.
Finally, do not be hesitant in ministering to a person who has experienced the death of a child, even if you have not had such an experience yourself. When you approach a loved one with genuine care and concern, God can and will use you as a means of comfort and healing during a time of tremendous sorrow.