February is a tough month for our family, bringing the anniversaries of our twins’ deaths. Each year I find myself answering hard questions from our sons about their sisters. Why did they die? Where are they now? Will I get to see them again?
As a parent who is theologically trained (and personally affected), I find it fascinating to reflect on children’s perspectives on grief and loss. Kids ask the same questions as adults, crystallized to their purest form. They are unashamed to express intense emotion — if given safe space.
In past generations, well-meaning professionals counseled parents to protect children from life’s losses. Research now affirms that both adults and children benefit from talking openly about death and learning to cope with loss in healthy ways.
A child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Studies have shown that even the youngest children can be affected by the disruptions that grief brings to a family.
Here are three questions I often hear children (and adults) ask while grieving. While I’m not a clinical counselor or a medical professional, I can speak to the theological realities behind these questions — and encourage you to draw from your own faith when children in your family are touched by grief.
Why did God let this happen?
The problem of suffering surfaces as quickly for children as for adults. Did God want this to happen? Why did God answer other prayers but not ours? How can we trust that God is still good?
Scripture speaks of God weeping with us (Jn 11:35), promising to destroy grief (Rv 21:4) and desiring life, not death (Ez 18:32). Sharing these stories with children can open up new ways of understanding God after loss.
Older kids and teenagers can tackle thornier discussions: the doctrine of free will, the nature of sin and the reality of evil. But for all who mourn, remembering that God remains with us in sadness and suffering is what we need to hear first and foremost when someone we love has died.
Will I die, too?
Children are quick to worry once faced with mortality. Will my mom and dad die now? If I get sick, am I going to die?
While we can assure kids that modern medicine is powerful, it’s equally true that healing is a mystery. Some people recover, some die and none of us will be here on earth forever. Faith means embracing mystery and trusting in what we cannot fully understand.
Reminding children of God’s particular love for them can bring comfort. God created them and knows them (Isaiah 43:1). God counts each of their hairs (Matthew 10:30). God calls them by name (John 10:3).
Are they in heaven?
Young children are often preoccupied with physicality. Where did my friend go? Why can’t I see Grandpa anymore?
When we mourn at any age, it helps to remember what the church teaches about salvation and resurrection. We pray that our beloved dead are in the hands of God. We hope to see them again in heaven. We stay connected through the communion of saints, asking them to pray for us and believing they remain united with us in love beyond what we can see.
Grieving children (and adults) need reassurance and reminders of God’s love through life’s hard times. We don’t have to hide the truth or offer easy answers in order to share God’s comfort.
Sitting with kids’ questions, making space for their emotions and surrounding them with love reflects our faith in the God who welcomed children and wept with mourners — the God who knows grief.
Laura Kelly Fanucci is a mother, writer and director of a project on vocation at the Collegeville Institute in Collegeville. She is the author of several books, including “Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting,” and blogs at www.motheringspirit.com.