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Effective Ministry to Bereaved Parents

By Emily Johns

"I’m sorry–we never got him back," the doctor said sorrowfully. Our 3-month-old son Michael was dead. An apparently healthy child who had cooed and laughed to the delight of his 3-year-old brother earlier in the morning, Michael had died of crib death–an occurrence for which there are few answers.

Death is inevitable, but the death of a child is acutely numbing. We learned a lot about how the mind works in grief. Perhaps our experience will help others respond to the death of a child.

1. Make your concern and love felt by your presence. After the death of a friend or family member, the tendency is to shut down and look inward. The bereaved want to be alone. Uncontrolled emotion is sometimes embarrassing, especially for men who feel that crying is unmasculine. Questions bombard the mind, making conversation difficult.

The bereaved need to have people around them, however, and they need to talk–even if the thoughts don’t make sense. We asked people not to come to our house, but several close friends came anyway. It was the best thing, for we began to open up and share. As we did so things began to focus again.

2. Use the child’s name in conversation. Even though the child is dead, memories are real and alive in the parents’ hearts. Sharing your memories of the child can be comforting. Thus you confirm the reality of the child’s life and importance.

3. The nursery or bedroom, toys, and clothing are painful reminders of the loss of the child. It is best for the parents to put these away in their own time when they are ready to confront the loss, thus helping put closure to their experience.

Some parents are unable to put things away; they leave a room as it was when the child was alive–probably out of fear of forgetting the loved one. By acknowledging that the child was real and not being afraid to talk about him or her, you reassure the parents that forgetting is impossible. Memories are healthy and should be encouraged. Putting away material reminders of the child is a positive step in grieving and getting on with life.

4. Let your own emotions show when ministering to parents who have lost a child. Crying shows your empathy and reassures the parents it is all right to cry. Emotion reinforces the fact that the child was important to you too.

5. Avoid saying things like, "God needed another little flower in heaven." God did not take the child away. His death was a result of living in a fallen world where death is a natural step for all of us. However, God allowed the death of the child. Now the parents need help in reaching into their store of deepest heartfelt faith for answers and comfort in the following days.

6. The grieving process comes in waves–some big, some small. Like the tides, they come at different times. At first the waves are close together, but in time they get farther and farther apart. When tears come 6 to 12 months after the child’s death, be tolerant of the parents–let them cry and let them talk. Be a good listener. Tears are a healthy response to a devastating experience.

At times even now–years later, certain songs will bring tears to my eyes in memory of our son. I let them flow and remember what a good God I serve. He has gently helped my family through a crippling experience. He is the great Physician of the body, mind, and soul.

7. Be aware of other siblings, for they also feel the loss of their brother or sister. Young children need outlets for the emotions they feel but are unable to display.

Our son was 3 when his little brother died. For several days his way of grieving was to play very, very hard–to the point of exhaustion. He asked a lot of questions which we tried to answer honestly in language he would understand. It is important not to make death unimportant by not discussing it at all or overly important by discussing it too much. It is OK for the child to see his parents cry, which shows that the deceased child was valued. This will be translated in his mind to mean that he is valued. Give the child space to play outside the home situation. Be careful not to take him away for long periods, for he will become confused.

One of the most meaningful cards I received when our son died had a little poem about a rose on the wall. It described how a little rose vine began to grow. One day it found itself wandering through a crack in the wall. It came into full bloom on the other side of the wall.

I equated the rose with my son. He never bloomed on the earthly side of the wall, but he now blooms in the Lord’s presence.

The end of our story was a happy one: We now have another rose in our family garden named Audrey Rose. She is blooming beautifully on the earthly side of the wall.