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.
Denial seems like such a safe state to be in. Perhaps this is why the body goes into a coma when a painful physical injury occurs, so it isn’t fighting with itself in order to heal.
For the first few months after a husband’s death, it is common and somewhat necessary to walk in denial instead of reality. Around the 6-9th month, however, the “shell of denial” will begin to break off leading the grieving one to make a choice – stay in the coma of denial, which would eventually lead to emotional death or wake up and begin to deal with the pain.
One morning during my quiet time, God took me back to my labor and delivery days. I heard God tell me repeatedly, “Embrace the pain!” Every time I would hear this admonition I would ask, “What?! Did I hear you right?” and “How?! Can I embrace the pain without it hurting?” Because He knows me, He gave me an illustration that was easy for me to relate to – childbirth. Moms, remember back to the last weeks of your pregnancy. You were ready to pay any price and do anything to deliver that baby, right? You are elated when you feel the first contraction! Your heart jumps and you’re overwhelmed with excitement. The time has finally come! You readily embrace the first few contractions because you know that you will soon hold the fruit of your efforts.
Now remember the delivery, three or four hours in, or even minutes for the fortunate ones, you are still ready to do what it takes, but the experience of labor is beginning to lose its thrill. You cringe when each contraction comes along, and at times, you even may want to resist the contraction. Your body goes through transition and the pain becomes intense. You really aren’t sure you are going to make it. It is at this point the doctor or midwife comes along and gently, but firmly says, “You need to embrace the pain to deliver the baby. Relax and give into each contraction and that will bring forth your child!”
“What? Embrace the pain?!” At the moment, embracing pain seems impossible, but the reward ahead moves you to do your best to “relax and give into the pain.” At that point, your body is free to do what it needs to do and before you know it, you are holding the fruit of your labor!
Emotionally, the grief experience is similar. We could deny something has happened and that God is at work. We could continue to walk in an empty shell (or impregnated one), but God has encouraged us to go ahead and relax, embrace the pain and watch Him bring forth life.
For me, this meant accepting the reality of my huge loss, and yes, that hurt! Much like the doctor or midwife though, God can be trusted. When He calls us to accept the pain and press into the new life He wants to bring, He is trustworthy. In the “birth pains” you now feel, focus on the promise of God that He is with you even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23). I know it might not feel like it today, but God is at work and will bring forth the fruit of your labor in the land of suffering.
“God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Genesis 41:52
When someone you dearly love dies, the world doesn’t stop. Although, for the one grieving it certainly seems it should. While you’re focusing on taking your next breath to make it through the motions of the day, the outside world looks like nothing and nobody has missed a beat. Everyone still goes to the grocery store, they pay their bills, kids go to school, and adults keep working. The earth keeps spinning and life just keeps going. In the beginning, it’s utterly annoying, but now looking back on that painful day of loss and the minutes, hours, and months that followed, I see what a blessing it is that life keeps going.
Oh, how awful it would be if everything did stop. There would be no spiritual growth and grief would be stagnant and unrelenting. I don’t necessarily believe that “time heals all wounds.” I believe Jesus does. But, I do believe that time makes it better, and it’s different for each of us. So, if you’re in the very early stages of grief, just know that, yes, it will be challenging, but you can look to the future with hope. It won’t always be like it is now (Praise God!).
We can definitely look forward to our future, but we can’t live in our future; we must live in the present. Along with that, our future won’t even be good if we aren’t learning to see what’s good right now. Six to nine months into widowhood was probably my darkest time—besides the very beginning, of course. But this was different. I think the shock and chaos were beginning to wear off and I was realizing, Oh my…this really IS my life…and I need to accept it.
I knew I needed to accept it, but I didn’t want to accept it. This was a pivotal time where God heavily laid on my heart for me to set my mind on Him, on the good. It wasn’t a harsh, “Okay, Emily, time to get over it!” Instead, I felt my Heavenly Father gently nudging me to stand up with some much needed encouragement, “I see your pain sweet child, I know you and I know your hurt. I want the best for you, and the best for you is to set your eyes on Me, not this world.” James 1:17 (ESV) says, “Every good gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” So not only was He asking me to set my eyes on Him, but to praise Him in every good thing, no matter how small, because it is a gift from Him. That fact that God freely gives of Himself, which is already enough, and still gives us more is amazing to me. At the time though, I was severely longing to be launched into the future away from the pain, but God was teaching me that if I couldn’t see the good now, I wouldn’t see it later either. If all I see is bad now, bad will be all I see later. He was training my heart towards gratefulness to Him and away from self-pity.
Sometimes we may think we have the right to self-pity because something awful has happened in our lives. But do we? The right to mourn, yes. The right to self-pity, no. So what’s the difference? Self-pity says, “Why did I deserve this? This isn’t fair. My life is way worse than so-and-so’s.” Mourning says, “This really hurts and it’s the result of a broken world.” In mourning we have the right to acknowledge our pain while also acknowledging the good in our lives. We can also understand that we are not the only ones hurting in this world. Self-pity steals our joy and tells us that the bad will out-weigh the good. It tells us that everyone else’s life is better than ours and a lot less painful or difficult. With that outlook we begin to not only hurt ourselves, but those around us. Self-pity is destructive, not healing. Self-pity is a lie from Satan intended to hurt us. We have to pray for a shift in our perspective, be aware of it, and work towards aligning our minds with Christ.
This is why I said time doesn’t heal, and Jesus does. If we make the choice of self-pity, whether subconsciously or not, we aren’t going to heal. Our wound is going to fester as we find more negative things to add onto it, and time will only be against us. On the other hand, if we choose Jesus, seeing His goodness, and trusting in God’s sovereignty in the midst of our pain, we will experience healing and joy unexplainable.
Can you believe we’re already coming to a close on the first month of this new year? Time on earth is going to keep ticking and life here is going to keep moving until that day we enter into eternity. How will we choose to use it? In thankfulness or self-pity? In growth or decline? In relationship with God or casting Him aside and doing life alone? I can assure you the latter of any of these will not lead to an abundant life. Our lives are not determined by our circumstances, but rather by where we put our trust. Let’s trust in the One who loves us so much He sent His only Son, Christ Jesus, to die for our sins and rose again so that we wouldn’t have to live an eternity separated from Him. God is good. He doesn’t want us “stuck in time” with our grief. If we allow God to use this time on earth to deepen our relationship with Him, He certainly will. He desires us to have His healing and joy and He will faithfully provide.
Father, thank You for Your love for us. Help us to keep moving forward with our eyes and hearts set on You. Adjust our perspectives to be more like Yours. Help us to be aware when our thoughts stray to negativity, so we can go to you to set our minds on things above. Help us to be eternal minded, and not to dwell on things that will only matter temporarily. Give us the faith to trust You to comfort us and heal us. Strengthen our desires to know You more and spend more time reading Your Word. You know us better than anyone ever could, and You love us still. Help us to rejoice in You even when our circumstances hurt. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.