I met my husband on a blind date. Sounds ordinary enough. But it wasn’t. A long-time friend of mine called me one day and said, “Sit down. My wife and I have prayed about this, and we want you to meet someone. He’s a widower with three kids.” Ugh. And then he told me some of the awful details. Cancer. A four-year, hard-fought battle. Three beautiful kids and this strong man of great character left behind. I couldn’t comprehend a person my own age having gone through such a trauma. And what about the kids?
The gravity of what they had lost began to set in the very first time I met them. A picture of their mom and her obituary was framed in the entryway of their home. Her handiwork was everywhere. She had made the curtains in the kids’ rooms, and hung the wallpaper. She had decorated every room. I looked through albums, and more albums, of the birthday parties she had thrown for them and the hairstyles she had fashioned for the girls. The Christmases, dance recitals, soccer games, baseball practices–all of them captured her smiling face, loving touch, or playful sense of humor. Her hand-written recipe cards were in the kitchen; her coat was in the closet. But the warmth and security of her presence was most certainly gone. Now what?
One out of seven children will lose a parent or sibling before the age of 20. That statistic overwhelms me.
My kids were 6, 8, and 10 when their mom died. I fell in love with their dad, and I fell in love with them. They were 9, 11, and 13 when I became their second mom. I made most every mistake a person could make in trying to navigate them through their grief. I didn’t know what I was doing. Our lives seemed too frantic, at the time, to try to figure it out. I was desperately trying to make a home for our kids, while also trying to manage the effects of their trauma. I see everything more clearly now that they are grown. I’ve learned a lot, both from Scripture and from experience, about broken-heartedness. What does a broken-hearted child need in order to heal? To re-engage with life? To prosper? To believe in God’s goodness again? The short answer is Jesus. Revealing Jesus to our sorrowful children is our privilege and our calling. The long answer, well let me take a crack at it:
In fifth grade our oldest daughter, Kristina, was placed in a grief group at her public school. The school counselor was trying to facilitate some discussion by pointing out the kids’ body language and what it said about how they were feeling. Our daughter looked at him with fury and said, “Did your mom die?” When he replied, “No” she said, “Then you don’t know anything about how I’m feeling.”
Grieving kids often feel alone. They think no one understands what they’re going through. This gets magnified in their thoughts and sometimes manifests itself in a tornado of angry outbursts, tantrums, obstinacy, and other tempestuous behaviors. Sometimes it manifests itself in depression, withdrawal, apathy, or panic. Don’t take these behaviors personally. I did. Big mistake. This is just what childhood grief looks like. It’s rough and raw. Your child doesn’t hate you. She hates being in pain.
At times my kids’ overblown emotions made me want to pull away, to punish, or to control. But when I think back on it, I know they were just trying to communicate how traumatized they felt. They were too young to tell me with words. They couldn’t articulate their inner turmoil so they showed me with chaotic behavior. In those terribly hard moments, I wish someone had told me how important it was to calm myself first, and then try to sympathize. What would it feel like if I had lost my mom at their age? Correction of their bad behavior might be necessary but I’d say double down on love and empathy. Oh what a stretch that is. But it works. Then help them, by asking many, many questions, to tell you what’s in their heart.
Another thing I found very helpful, when my kids felt all alone in their pain, was to ask them about their mom. What was she like? What do you remember about her? How did she make you feel special? I found they were eager to tell me. You know those recipe cards I said were in the kitchen? Kristina and I went through every one of them. We saved her favorites. I ended up learning to make one of their mom’s recipes, the one the kids liked the most, Korean flank steak. So let your kids tell you how much they loved the one they lost. Doing this created a very deep bond between my kids and me. I think they would tell you that sharing their mom with me made them feel less alone.
Their souls are swarming with unrest. Inside they may be screaming, “Where is God?! Why has this happened to me?!” And because of their experiences, they will often conclude God isn’t real . . .God doesn’t love me . . .God isn’t kind. Eventually these kids will want answers to some pretty sophisticated questions about God. Mine did. Why does He allow people to die? If God is good, why is there so much evil in the world? What will we do in heaven? Does God answer prayers?
Someone has to anticipate and answer these questions with the hope and comfort of God’s Word. Our faith, our knowledge of the Word, and our personal relationship with Jesus are critical in helping our kids through their dark valley. We can use the Bible to tell our kids about people who lost loved ones or were trapped in terrible circumstances. We can point to David, Ruth, Joseph and so many others to show them how God healed, blessed, and delivered them, and gave them extraordinary futures. We can teach our kids about death too, and how it originated. That way they will never have to wonder if the death of their loved one was their fault, or God’s fault. God hates death. They must know that.
Ultimately behind all of a grieving child’s questions is a deep need to be reassured of God’s goodness. We have the love of Jesus, living inside of us, to give them that assurance. We can all testify of the extraordinary ways God has been good to us, especially when we’ve faced difficulties. The revelation of God’s goodness produces faith and hope for the future.
Finally I will share with you one revelation that has revolutionized my understanding of broken-heartedness and its remedy.
“A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance, but by sorrow of the heart the spirit is broken.” Proverbs 15:13 (italics mine)
“The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (italics mine)
A broken heart and a broken spirit go hand in hand. Grief is a spiritual issue. If a child’s spirit is broken by sorrow, who can mend it?
“He (Jesus) heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3
Jesus heals broken spirits. He does this by revealing His character and nature to us. It is not as important for children to understand their grief as it is for them to know their Healer.
Kristina’s reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion was the turning point in her grief. That’s because there is no better comfort than knowing Jesus’ heart for us. When a child no longer doubts His goodness, the healing begins.
I am extraordinarily blessed to have three beautiful, loving kids who call me Mom. What ultimately led my kids back, from despair into faith and life, was knowing Jesus is good, Jesus loves them, Jesus is with them, and Jesus has eternally good plans for them. Jesus. He’s the short answer. He’s the long answer.
To order the great resource for children click here: Emily Lost Someone She Loved
For more information helping children grieve, contact Kathleen Fucci Ministries
Kathleen Fucci earned a B.A. in Psychology from The University of the South and an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a conference speaker and has taught Bible studies for churches in Southern California, including The Vineyard Church of Anaheim and Rock Harbor Church.
Her special areas of interest include: Christian apologetics, Biblical exegesis, eschatology, and health and healing, with extensive research in human physiology and psychoneuroimmunology (the effect of thoughts and emotions on the body’s immune system), as well as neurocardiology and neurotheology. She has a passion for helping others discover and walk in their full inheritance in Christ Jesus.
Kathleen is an award-winning children’s picture book author, and recently finished her second picture book to offer hope and healing to children grieving the loss of someone they love. She is a wife and mother of three adult children, who lost their mom when they were young.
 Findings from http://www.hellogrief.org/about/life-with-grief-research/ 2015; 5:5
Sadly, children are not exempt from suffering, especially when they are faced with the death of a parent. Over the course of their lives, they will experience the many stages of grief, and as they grow, grief can grow and pop up in surprising ways. Shaping their perspective will play a huge part in producing positive fruit from their grief. Children must be directed and encouraged to see that God is both in control and a loving, kind, and gracious Father. Through that lens they will be able to see that God gives purpose in their pain—ultimately to know Him in a way they never would without the pain.
In a perfect world, childhood is a time of joyful innocence, brimming with family activities, warmth, and wonder at all you’re learning and experiencing. Yes, my childhood included many of these things: a loving family, fun activities, sports, crafts, vacations, church, school, friends, birthday parties, girl scouts.
I was ten years old. It no longer mattered to me how good my life had been, or what I had learned at Vacation Bible School. Death taught me, “God doesn’t love me!” The loss I felt screamed in my ear, ”God isn’t good!” And the pain I carried whispered,“Things will never, ever be good again.”
I tried so hard to reconcile a good and loving God with the death of my mom. Deep down I wanted to believe that God was real and kind. That my mom was in heaven, not buried in the ground. I wanted to believe more than anything, but it felt as if there were a gulf separating me from God.
I turned inward with my feelings. Everyone was falling apart around me, so I resolved that no one would see me cry. I would remain stable. Steady. Only I wasn’t. My anger was so overwhelming, I could not manage it. I was mad at everyone. God. Why did He allow this to happen? My family. Why wasn’t I told more about what was happening with my mom? My friends. Why did they all have whole families when mine was torn apart? Didn’t they know how lucky they were to still have a mom?
To cope I began doing the things my mom used to do – making sure my brother and sister were okay. That they had eaten dinner, done their homework. I did laundry. I cleaned. I did all I could to maintain order amidst the chaos churning all around me, and within me. I grew more and more bitter. What ten-year-old has to endure these things? Why is my life so hard compared to those around me? Why did this have to happen to me? Will things ever get better? Is the rest of my life going to feel like this? Will I ever feel joy again?
In the months after my mom’s death, I decided that either God wasn’t real—or He wasn’t good. Since I prayed for my mom to live, and she died, these seemed the only possible conclusions. Either way, I wanted to know. I wanted to know more about this God I didn’t even believe in. Months turned to years as I sat in this place of anger, pain, and brokenness.
Without my praying, without my asking, without my even dreaming it could be so, God blessed me with another amazing mother. A mother who sat with me for hours to talk about the loss I had experienced. A mother who would allow me to ask any question about God I wanted—or needed—to ask. A mother who took me to church, but let me make my faith my own. A mother who cooked for me. Cared for me. A mother who loved me unconditionally, as I had been loved before. Without my even asking, God redeemed. Without even knowing it could be possible, He restored to me what I had lost.
As I processed my grief with my new mom, I began to grow in a true knowledge of who God is.
One summer my life-long best friend invited me to a church camp. Sitting in the crowded chapel, I listened, stunned, as the speaker walked us through Jesus’ crucifixion. I had no idea that Jesus had suffered like this. The truth rang loud and clear in my heart: Jesus was familiar with suffering. The man continued, “It does not matter what has happened to you, God was with you. He wept when you wept.” This time, my faulty paradigm shattered. God wasn’t distant. He wasn’t bad. He didn’t hate me. He was intimately aware of my suffering. He wept, too, in fact. When I would scream into my pillow at night, when the tears wouldn’t stop flowing, when the hole in my heart threatened to undo me, Jesus was with me. He cared. He loved me. He had, in fact, never left my side.
Being reassured of God’s goodness, His mercy, His love—it changed my life. He has provided for me, and restored to me what I lost. He has mended my broken heart. These miracles are proof to me of who He is and what He can do. He is much greater than my ten year old mind had allowed.
My new mom is like one of those stones the Israelites took up as they crossed the Jordan River—a symbol of God’s goodness. I can look back on my past and, instead of seeing a shattered life, a broken heart, I see the hand of a loving Father—restoring, redeeming, and healing.
To order the great resource for children click here: Emily Lost Someone She Loved
For more information helping children grieve, contact Kathleen Fucci Ministries
Kristina Fucci earned a B.A. in English from Westmont College and an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Talbot School of Theology. Before joining Kathleen Fucci Ministries, Kristina worked in Christian publishing as a contributing writer and marketer for a number of children’s ministry resources, including Sunday School and Vacation Bible School Curricula. She has also worked in Christian radio.
I don’t know about you, but my whole life I thought I understood suffering, that was until it really came knocking on my door with the death of my husband. Then it became personal, and just like that the questions, doubts, and fears came rushing in all at once. Where was God in all of this? Would he be faithful to me? Could I make it without my husband? Did I have reason to hope like I had grown up believing?
These questions can be overwhelming and downright terrifying, but in my lowest moments, I found answers and hope in scripture, in Christ. When the tears were many and there was no place else to run, these words held me safe and gave the courage to take another step.
In the midst of your suffering, I urge you to turn to the only place you will find lasting hope and purpose in the pain. It won’t make all your problems disappear, but you will never be alone. God wants to meet you in your suffering—he promises to. Take the timeless words of scripture and write them on your heart, day by day repeat them to yourself, and watch how they renew your mind and bring you to a place of contentment and trust in God.
Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
2 Corinthians 4:17: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
Psalm 68:5: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.”
Isaiah 43:2: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
God was a not silent about those who suffer, in fact scripture is full of his promises to meet you in the mourning. His Word makes it clear that he has not left us to make it alone. There is hope, respite, and even new joys to be found in Christ. Anchor yourself in His words and though your boat may rock, it will never be thrown off course. He is faithful.
It took me a long time to figure out who Alex was after my husband JM died. There was a period of time where I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror (no joke). I would stare for minutes and genuinely not recognize myself, tears slowly starting to flow steadily down my cheeks. I was so lost. Lost in the grief, the tears, the funeral planning, the putting my life back together; I was only 23, and I didn’t have a clue who on earth I was.
We all know how it goes, when we are kids we are anyone the world wants (for better or worse, right?), we change with the wind and with whatever is “cool” and whichever friends we had that year. But as we get older, we start to care who we become and what we stand for, figuring out that life is HARD. I spent almost all my latter years of high school and most of college finding the real me, and somewhere in there I finally liked her and the path she had taken. Then college came to an end, I entered the “real world,” and married my best friend, JM, and legit became the best version of me…US. Of course, marriage was hard, as for all, but we were having fun defining our new roles and living life as a team of two.
On September 19, 2015, with the death of my husband, it seemed like all the figuring out I had done came crashing down on a BIG, FAT reset button, and right there, a week before my 24th birthday, I had to learn all over again. Or so I thought. My role changed but maybe, just maybe, my identity didn’t. It took several weeks to see it, but underneath all the darkness of grief, my identity was still there shaken but not destroyed. The things I had learned from God though all those formative years about who I was as a daughter of Christ and all the qualities God instilled in me through all my life’s highs and lows were there, ready to help me navigate the long road ahead. Sure, some things had to change, and they did in their own time, and eventually I found a me by remembering the old me and allowing God to shape the “new” me.
The me before my first husband—my humor, things I liked doing, and my faith in Christ. I had to remember that just because I was no longer a wife did not mean that I was no longer me. I always liked traveling, so by gosh, I could still travel, even if it was alone. After all I still had Christ.
Then it moved to relearning who I was because of my first marriage—characteristics I picked up in our marriage, like learning to not throw in the towel so quickly. New hobbies like trying every cool foodie spot we could find, and trusting God’s goodness even when I couldn’t see it (boy would that come in handy).
The last part, and probably the hardest, was learning who Alex is because of all of this, the death, the life after, and even one day remarriage (a WHOLE different relearning, but fun). And, if I am going to be honest, the me I found before my new husband, and after my first was the best me. It hurt immensely finding her, but God was creating her all along the freaky, bumpy road. People who are in Christ don’t get lost in their grief, at least not permanently. Changing roles is never easy, but if we cling to our identity as Christ’s child who is loved and not forsaken, though we change a LOT, we don’t get lost.
Grief is a journey of truly finding and rooting your identity in Christ, not in a husband, not in tears, not in Alex the widow, not in remarriage, but in Christ. It’s taking the longings I have to see my first soul mate (even still) and saying, “God what do you want these longings to make of me.” If we don’t give them to Christ, they will literally rule our life, and we will never be able to move forward into what God has for us still on this earth. I had to learn that the role of Alex, as JM’s wife, was not identity, so that I could be okay when my role changed, which it inevitably will in many ways over my life. Of course, I still miss him, but as time passes, and as God gives me the grace to be content and then even elated again, my longings have become a tool to help me keep going and not one that stops me.
It all just takes time. There will be so many hard moments where all you can be is sad, confused, and more sad, but eventually, if you keep clinging to Christ, that does break away and opens you to be the “new you,” and really keep living with purpose and life. I have never been so content and that’s not because nothing hurts anymore. It’s because when I thought I was permanently broken, God was with me, bringing beauty from the ashes, giving purpose to the pain.
Summer busyness is over, and a new slower paced season is right around the corner. Although the turning of the leaves and cooler temperatures are a nice change from the summer heat, fall, and winter, can be some of the loneliest seasons for the widow. The many holidays ahead shine a bright spotlight on the fact that her husband is no longer here and force her to change a lot of the traditions she had become accustomed to – it’s a scary thought. Even though the widow might not verbalize her needs this fall, she will be needing the warmth of her community and a reminder of the closeness of Christ. As the warm weather begins to fade, consider the following ways to warm the widow’s heart and home this fall:
At the time of my husband’s unexpected death, I had eight children under the age of ten. The first four months were filled with business meetings, phone calls, and visits from well-meaning friends, family, and even strangers…oh and chaos – complete grace-filled chaos! The normal rhythm of our daily life had been turned upside down.
There were days that I would focus on something I had planned to do, like teaching school, when suddenly, I found myself doing something completely unplanned! It was that “grief thing” of keeping busy so I wouldn’t feel the pain. Or, it could have been the “grief brain” that removed the ability to focus on anything at all. Can you can relate? In my flurry, I would often enter a room to put something away and before I walked out again, I was involved in something I hadn’t ever planned to do.
For example, one afternoon I had the idea to separate a set of bunk beds into twin beds. I zipped into the room to perform this simple task without any thought at all that it would be something beyond my physical capability. My husband built the kid’s furniture to withstand any storm, apparently except for my grief attack. As I pulled the top bed off, I quickly realized that this was not a task to accomplish by myself. I was stuck! I couldn’t get it down to the floor, and I couldn’t get the bed back on top, and I couldn’t leave it hanging in mid-air. Frantically, I looked around only to see my precious little ones staring up at me willing to assist in any way they could. With the help of my two sons (ages 4 and 5) and my determined six-year-old daughter we managed to get the bed to the floor without hurting the babies in the process. The only damage was a minor hole in the wall and a broken bed. That little fit of independence brought out so many emotions. My inability to complete a simple task brought about anger I has buried deep inside. What do I even do with all this unresolved anger? Who do I resolve it with? Is unresolved anger what leads to depression? Oh my, what an emotional price to pay for the new bedroom arrangement!
Taking care of 8 children was always a bit overwhelming, but now, without my husband, I felt shaken, pressed down to my wits end, and running over. Actually, I felt that I had been run over. Even though I knew God was working through it all, life was hard, oh so hard. Change was taking place – physical, emotional, and spiritual change. Many days by 5:00 p.m. I felt that I just couldn’t make it through the rest of the day. However, with a houseful of small children, stopping wasn’t an option, so I pushed through. Soon dinner would be over, children bathed, and we would be onto my favorite part of the day – devotions and listening to the hearts of my children. Often, I had to confess my own wrong attitudes, a poor choice of words, or an action I didn’t think fully though. I loved to hear my children share their hurts and struggles, as well. (Side note: this simple but planned time of communication brought more fruit to our family more than anything else we do.)
Even though I had help here and there with the whole single-parenting thing, I still felt that my yoke wasn’t easy, and my burden was not light! Didn’t the Bible offer that promise somewhere? I asked God to give order to each day and to the large task ahead. I worked hard to be brave and courageous, but honestly, I was overwhelmed and exhausted. As I evaluated where I was in the timeline of my life, there were some very difficult years still ahead of me. I didn’t have in-house babysitting, I had a bunch of toddlers that need lots of consistent training and encouragement, and the adjustment to doing all of this alone was still very new. If God’s yoke was easy and His burden light, then I must be wearing the wrong yoke, right? I felt confident that the old yoke would feel so much better than my new one! But, I couldn’t take this new yoke off! (Weren’t yokes made for two oxen? I’m sure if it was for one ox, the load behind was smaller than 8?!)
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NASB).
Easy? This was anything but easy. Light? In my own strength my new load was heavy. Rest? I didn’t think that would be possible for decades. I found myself pulling into a shell. I wanted to hide, disappear, and pretend that this had not happened. God kept telling me this was not a shell but a cocoon. To get the easy-light-rest that the Bible talks about, I had to trust God and learn from Him in this season, so that I would come out a beautiful butterfly rather than a dead caterpillar. When I looked up the meaning of the word easy in this text, I learned that the Greek meaning was much different than one would think. Easy is not the opposite of hard, but rather means to be fit for use, virtuous, and good. The process in this spiritual cocoon would be worth it all, and it was. His faithfulness proved that His burden is light when received with humility from His hand. God was performing a work of grace with this yoke upon me.
Most of us widows find it easy to mourn with others and sympathize with pain, but when it comes to rejoicing with others, temptation can easily be creeping at the door. The temptation of resentment, the temptation of, “Why not me?” lurks. When it seems like life’s new joys have stopped for the widow, the new joys of others suddenly become more obvious to her. This new sensitivity to others’ joy, as well as pain, can be a beautiful thing or an ugly thing depending on how we respond to it. It may seem like an obvious concept, “rejoice with those who rejoice,” but when new joy for others becomes our own new loss, rejoicing with others may not come so easily.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the acknowledgement of loss in our lives, but we have to redirect our focus at some point. It’s okay to feel the sting of loss when you hear the news of another pregnancy, knowing you may never be able to have children again. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain when you see your fatherless child watching another child snuggled up in his own daddy’s arms. But we can’t stay there, we can’t dwell in the pain. Someone else’s gain does not make our loss any greater.
Three months into widowhood, I found myself sitting in a classroom at a hospital, seven months pregnant about to begin a water birth class. I sat at my desk, and I started to scan the room. I was the only woman in the room who didn’t have her husband by her side. Instead, I had my mom. My eyes welled up with tears at the reminder of my loss, along with the thoughts of this isn’t fair, why me? Thankfully, my mom was there for me, rather than no one at all. She mourned with me in the moment, acknowledged my pain, and redirected my thoughts towards thankfulness. What a blessing that those women had support, and their children would have fathers! Their gain ultimately became my joy.
“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26 NKJV
We will never have joy if we don’t desire good for others. Our rejoicing with those who rejoice while we’re in a season of mourning is life giving on both sides. It’s an act of selfless love, rather than something that simply happens naturally. Most of us have high expectations for those who are rejoicing to mourn with the mourning, but the mourning are called to the same act of love. Considering others better than ourselves is not easy, and it’s certainly not what our sinful nature is inclined to do, but it’s what Jesus does and asks us to do, as well. Jesus asks difficult things of us, but He never asks us to do things that won’t benefit us in the end. God knows we gain joy in loving others and rejoicing with them.
There are seasons for everything and everyone. Sometimes we’re the ones in a season of mourning while others are in a season of rejoicing, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Keeping in mind that everyone experiences suffering at some point in their lives, is a good reminder that we aren’t always in the valley and others are certainly not always on the mountaintop. When we’re in the valley, we have the opportunity to share in the mountaintop moments by rejoicing with others, while also giving thanks to the ones choosing to mourn with us.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15 NKJV
“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” Philippians 2:3 NKJV