Fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, shootings, illnesses, accidents–it seems that everywhere we turn just now, we are faced with traumatic events that leave us and those we love struggling and in pain. Where is God when terrible things happen? Why does God allow tragedy? These are questions we have asked since the beginning of time. It may not surprise you that the oldest book in the Bible, Job, takes on the problem of human suffering and how people of faith should understand it without answering the question well at all.
The idea that God intervenes in human affairs and natural disasters–or worse, chooses not to–has always been troubling to me. My understanding of God is a loving presence, with us in every moment, good and terrible. As Christians, we know in Jesus a God who suffers with us, a compassionate God who understands human grief and suffering because he has grieved and suffered, too. Harold Kushner says, “God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help. As a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi once put it, ‘human beings are God’s language.’” Television icon and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers is still widely quoted when tragedy strikes:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”²
This is how God acts in times of trouble, in and through us.
How to Help Children in Difficult Times
- Comfort them, assure them, be with them.
- Tell them that it’s okay to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. Help them name what they are feeling. Tell them what you are feeling, too, and don’t be afraid to show your emotions.
- Make sure they understand nothing that has happened is their fault.
- Tell them what they need to know as clearly and simply as you can. The facts surrounding traumatic events are far better coming from you than from any other source.
- Don’t use euphemisms. Say died, not “passed away.” Equating death with sleep or a long trip is a really bad idea. Even saying “God needed another angel” or “God has taken them to heaven” is problematic, because children may fear that God will want to take them, too.
- Limit their exposure to the news (if it is a local or national tragedy) and/or adult conversation.
- Listen to their questions. What they are actually asking is not necessarily what we think they are asking. My case in point is my son Peter at three: when he began to understand in a different way that he had just one parent, he started asking about what would happen to him if I died. I kept reassuring him. He was frustrated. One morning as I was unbuckling him from the car seat in the preschool drop-off lane, he said to me, “If you die today or tomorrow, who will drive this car and take me where I need to go?” What Peter needed to know was that I had a plan for him.
- You are allowed to say that you don’t know or that you don’t understand either. It’s healthy and helpful to let your children know that you don’t have all the answers.
- Try to maintain as normal a routine as possible. This will help you as well as your children, if some things in an otherwise chaotic time can remain the same.
In the event of a tragedy, by all means tell your children that this [natural disaster, school shooting, death of a child] is very rare, and that God did not cause it–or any other death, illness, accident–to happen.
There are a number of excellent resources available as you make your way through a time of crisis. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner deserves its status as a classic in the field. He writes for adults clearly and with compassion from his experience as a rabbi and a parent. Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higgenbotham, is refreshingly honest and sensitive, while leaving room for your own beliefs. Artist and writer Roger Hutchison’s new book, My Favorite Color is Blue. Sometimes., explores grief in beautiful imagery and nuanced language that will touch the hearts of children and adults.
Helping Others in the Midst of their Grief
Show up. Please, please show up. So many of us back away; we are afraid to come close, as if cancer or the death of a spouse or a child is somehow contagious. You may not know what to say. Say that. Say, “I have no words.” It’s fine to sit in silence, to hold your friend as she cries, to cry with her. The real ministry is being present.
Do not say, “Please let me know if I can help.” Be specific. Call from the grocery store and say, “I am picking up dinner for you. Would you like me to choose, or do you have some suggestions?” Say, “I’m coming over to do your laundry,” or offer to pick up their kids from school and spend the afternoon with them. People in crisis have practical needs and you can do something. Can you go to doctor’s appointments with them? That can be of tremendous value. In fact, you can learn how to clean a feeding tube and administer morphine. You may not think you can, but trust me on this. What your friend is doing is so much harder.
Be aware of how you speak of God. It is never God’s will or God’s plan for a loved one to be ill or to die. Equally unhelpful is “God never gives you more than you can handle,” because God simply doesn’t work like that. Even “He’s in a better place” is hurtful, because no matter what heaven is like, when someone loses a spouse or a child, there is no better place that person could be than with their family. When I found myself spending time with a family who had recently learned their youngest child was dying, a wise priest who had also been a hospice chaplain told me, “In much of this, God will feel more present to you than to them.” That made me think about what I was doing in a different way: I wasn’t there to bring them God; I found God when I was with them, sipping tea or emptying the dishwasher or sitting at the bedside of their sweet and beloved child. It is a sacred thing, to come close to people in this time, but the gift will be yours to receive.
Don’t shield your own children. Let them make cards, help prepare a meal, visit. Let them see how we take care of each other in times of need.
Children can and should go to funerals if they want to go. Methodist minister Melissa Florer-Bixler writes:
“Funerals make space within the church, among God’s people, for children to explore the strangeness of life’s end. It is here that they see adults vulnerable to grief; that they sense the magnitude of what we face. Here children also learn that we carry this grief together. It is at funerals that we discover that, even in the end, there is nowhere we can go from God’s love–because we see it in the people gathered around us.”
Christian funerals in the liturgical churches are framed as celebrations of life. The color of the altar covering and the vestments worn by the clergy is white because we are Easter people; we know that death is not the end of this story either, even if we aren’t exactly clear on the details of what happens next. The liturgy itself helps us embrace the mystery.
Those who have died live on in our memories. Tell their stories, talk about them, show photos, listen to their favorite music, and visit the places that were special to them. I have “memories” of my great-grandmothers whom I never met, because my parents and grandparents have shared their stories with such warmth and vividness. Our loved ones are still present in the love we share with each other.
What About Heaven?
Please talk to your children about heaven if it brings you comfort; and even if you are unsure about it, imagining what it might be like can be a helpful tool for them. There are some lovely picture books that can give you a way in. A dear friend used Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant with her children to talk with them, not about the death of a pet, but of a loved one and found that the remove of dogs from people meant that she could get through it and the resulting conversation without crying. If heaven is so wonderful for the dogs in this book, how much more wonderful will being with God be for the people we love? A particularly moving picture book to use with school-aged children is The Next Place by Warren Hanson.
When I talk about heaven, I am usually imagining the parousia, a Greek word that means “presence,” the time at the end of time when God will be “all in all.” I use this image from Revelation 21:
Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s peoples. … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (CEB)
I don’t know what happens after we die, but this I believe.
Death and tragedy touch all of us. If you haven’t had to talk to your children about them yet, it’s only a matter of time. Take heart. “Here is the world,” says theologian Frederick Buechner, echoing God, “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” We are not afraid because we know God is with us always, and nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.
Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.