Where is God? Children and Grief

“I wasn’t prepared for any of this!” Unfortunately, children’s ministers everywhere are expressing this comment too frequently. Church leaders are dealing with the aftermath of violence in cities such as Oklahoma City; Jonesboro, Arkansas; and Edinboro, Pennsylvania.

For the children in these communities, their lives are forever changed by violent acts. It’s sometimes hard for them to understand how God can help them through this pain. Some children may even hold God responsible for these tragedies and turn their backs on God.

You can be instrumental in helping traumatized children experience a healthy spiritual healing process. Are you prepared to deal with the trauma of violence? Follow this advice to help kids see the loving face of God in a world filled with shadows.

First, know yourself. Given the scope of unexpected tragedies, the entire community—including ministers—needs to heal. As a grief counselor, I’ve found that the healing process starts by understanding and dealing with your own feelings first. You can do this by:

  • Being in touch with your feelings;
  • Expressing your feelings appropriately;
  • Tracking where you are in the grieving process and your beliefs about God;
  • Understanding that it’s okay to talk about grief and not talk about God;
  • Comfortably expressing your feelings with children;
  • Accepting your own and others’ feelings;
  • Modeling appropriate behavior; and
  • Praying.

Listen to children’s hearts. Help children understand where God is in the midst of their trauma. Just as children’s reactions to grief are individualized, so are their reactions to God. These are some typical reactions from children:

  • “Get away from me, God! You made this happen!”
  • “God is there for me. He’ll take care of this.” 
  • “Why did you do this, God?” 
  • “I hate you, God.”
  • “There is no God. If there was, he wouldn’t have done this.”

These reactions to God are another dimension of the grieving process. Just as the grieving process isn’t linear, neither are children’s reactions to God throughout this process. Children’s feelings about God may vary from minute to minute, or they may experience a variety of feelings simultaneously. Children can experience these reactions to God in varying degrees of intensity as they sort through the confusion created by the trauma. See the “Grieving Stages” (below) to understand where children may be in their grieving process.

Let children know that it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling about God. Children shouldn’t deny or judge their feelings. Instead, they can bring their feelings to God for healing, and they can trust that God is there to help them.

Understand God’s role in healing. Find strength in knowing that God is your most powerful ally in helping children heal. It’s important to understand the role God plays in healing. Call upon the power of the Great Healer as he has ministered to you. One of the best ways to help children trust God again is in being a good role model by:

  • Demonstrating your trust in God despite the trauma;
  • Reminding children that God was in their lives before the trauma and will always be there;
  • Seeing God at work in your life; and 
  • Being “real” and expressing feelings about God appropriately, which will enable children to express their feelings.

Get involved with kids. Lead children through activities that help them express and work through their feelings about God. These activities focus on prayer and Scripture, which are essential for healing.

JESUS IS HERE
If children are angry with God, encourage them to see themselves at a different age, perhaps before the trauma. Tell them to picture themselves in a safe place. Have them picture Jesus, and then invite him to heal them and help them with their pain.

COLOR ME BLUE
Have children use art forms to express their feelings. Connect children’s feelings about God and the trauma to Bible stories. Give children pictures of Bible stories where Jesus healed people. Ask children to draw themselves into the “picture.” Have them draw a picture of what this Bible story would look like today.

Ask them how God fits into their pictures.

Also, have children draw a series of pictures about the trauma. Have them draw three pictures—one about what their lives were like before the trauma, one about the trauma, and another one about their lives in the future.

Lead children in discussing how God fits into their pictures. Sensitively interpret the pictures to determine if they might generate new healing activities. For example, if children draw flowers, you might suggest that they take flowers to the cemetery.

JOURNALING
Once you walk children through the above activities, have them write about any feelings that surfaced during the activities. Connect small groups of children with an adult. Have children tell what they wrote so they can “let go” of their pain.

DAY-TO-DAY
If children are having trouble sleeping or are haunted by nightmares, encourage them to use a religious “security blanket” for a while. Taking a visual reminder of God’s presence–such as a Bible or cross–to bed can comfort traumatized children. These symbols provide children with something tangible to reestablish trust in God.

No matter what you do with children, plan for positive closure. However, don’t create an emotional experience without knowing what to do with it. If you truly feel underqualified, connect children with other support resources, such as teachers or psychologists. Don’t try to duplicate what others are doing; instead, subtly reinforce their efforts.

You can help children find God again by enabling children to express whatever they’re feeling about God and helping them work through those feelings. Your rewards are many. You’ll see children run and play again. You’ll see them grow in God’s light. And you’ll know that you’ve had a hand in their healing process.

GRIEVING STAGES
As children travel through grief, their faith in God may be impacted in these ways at each stage:

STAGES—REACTIONS TO GOD
1. Shock—God doesn’t exist.
2. Denial—God will take care of things; there’s no need to deal with feelings.
3. Isolation—God is deliberately rejecting me.
4. Anger—I hate God and formal worship.
5. Bargaining—God is angry and punitive; good behavior will result in God making things better.
6. Depression—At the extreme, I want to be with God and stop living in order to ease my pain.
7. Acceptance—I can deal with and share my feelings about God and start accepting God in my life again.  

Anthony Sirianni is a hospital chaplain in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he specializes in counseling dying or grieving children.  

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