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A Christian Reflection on How Grief Changes Children

Updated on May 26, 2017
denise.w.anderson profile image

When my brother died at the age of 16 in a tragic drowning accident, our family changed. I was only 15 at the time.

Death comes to all of us. It is simply our passage back to God.
Death comes to all of us. It is simply our passage back to God.

My Brother, Derwin

"Mommy, where's Derwin?"

"He's up in heaven, Honey."

"Why?"

"Heavenly Father wanted him to be with him now."

"That's not fair! I want him here!"

"I'm sorry. You will see him again."

"I want to see him now! Doesn't Heavenly Father love me anymore?"

When my brother, Derwin, died at the age of 16 in a tragic drowning accident, our family changed. I was only 15 at the time, and I had always lived in his shadow. He was strong, athletic, smart, and dependable. I always knew I could count on him—and then one day he was gone.

My younger siblings had a difficult time with the adjustment. Death was a new concept for them. When we went to the funeral home, I heard them asking my parents, "Why doesn't he wake up?" "Why can't he move?" "Why do we have to leave him here?" "I want him to come home!"

They couldn't understand that their beloved older brother was gone for good. It devastated them. I didn't understand my own feelings at the time, either. I watched everyone around me crying, but I couldn't. For some reason, I kept telling myself, "It's not my fault."

Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see.

— Helen Keller

Children are born with a keen sense of fairness and family. They look at objects or animals and automatically assign them the familiar roles of mother, father, and baby. Children love their parents, no matter who they are or what they have done. They naturally want to be with them and will do everything they can to return to them, no matter the cost.

When this natural course of events is interrupted through the loss of a parent or sibling, children grieve, and their development of trust is altered. The child's world view becomes one of pain and sorrow. The sparkle leaves their eyes, the shoulders slump, and feelings of self-worth are replaced by fear and doubt.

The very foundations of their world are rocked and they are left like a ship without an anchor. Nothing is sure anymore. There is deep uncertainty and they are much more cautious about trusting others. When children grieve, we cannot brush them aside with trite phrases or dismiss their feelings as only temporary. They want and need answers to their deep questions, and it is up to us as the adults in their world to provide them.

Children can easily develop distorted thoughts concerning death. Worry is the result.
Children can easily develop distorted thoughts concerning death. Worry is the result.

The questions of life and death have been around since the beginning of time. Any person who has lived on this earth faces them when facing their own mortality. They are:

  • Who am I?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Where do I go after I die?

If we have not found the answers to these questions ourselves, how can we help the children in our world face them? Grief requires an adjustment in our world view, no matter what our age when we experience the loss. The world view of children centers primarily on the home and family; therefore, when loss takes place within that world view, the entire world crumbles and trauma is the result.

Children have been known to lose language skills, regress to infantile behavior, and develop emotional disorders as a result of losing a parent or sibling. It takes years and lots of love to rebuild the relationships of trust that are lost and to reconstruct a more positive world view.

Even then, as adults, those who have experienced childhood grief have to replace the lost connection with one that can never be severed, that of being a child of God. God is our Heavenly Father and we are all his children. This spiritual heritage is the only substitute that will suffice for lost relationships in our earthly existence.

Death separates “the spirit and the body [which] are the soul of man.” (D&C 88:15.) That separation evokes pangs of sorrow and shock among those left behind. The hurt is real. Only its intensity varies. Some doors are heavier than others. The sense of tragedy may be related to age. Generally the younger the victim, the greater the grief.

— Russell M. Nelson

My Brother, My Friend

Written by Denise W. Anderson in memorial of her brother, Derwin.

There was a time when life was good. Running with the wind, we believed within. Laughter and children are forever young, carefree and loving, enjoying the fun. A time when my brother was always my best friend, together we will be until the end. Cheering and challenging, tailing and traveling, I'm with my brother, I'm with my friend.

Then death came unexpectedly to a strong willed youth like a saber-tooth! I cried in anguish, "God why can't you see? He was the best of them, how could this be?" My heart wrenched within me, my anger unending! He was my brother, my soul is now rending! Crying and cradling, sighing and saying, "You took my brother, you took my friend!"

Brothers are special, brothers are strong, and brothers are like saviors to those who walk their shadows.....

The days pass by so quickly now, time has ways to heal what we only feel. I think of Jesus who died on the cross, Mary and Joseph each mourned the great loss. Our Father in Heaven cried out in his suffering, watching his son as a lamb on an offering! Even the earth moaned seeing him all alone, Jesus my brother, Jesus my friend.

I know my Savior rose again. He is up on high, the Father is close by. Rejoice my heart and sing praises to him! Death has been conquered, we will live again! I will see my brother and we'll be together, never to part again, worlds on forever. Because we live again, I'll see him once again. I'll see my brother, I'll see my friend!

Years after my brother's death, when my husband's grandmother passed away, I became physically ill. I realized that I wasn't just grieving for her, I was grieving for my brother as well. I wrote a poem that expressed my feelings, then I looked through my things and found some pictures of him. I told my mother what I was doing, and she sent me a copy of the life history he had completed prior to his death. I added it to the booklet, made copies for my family members, and sent it to them.

The people most affected by my gift were my younger siblings. They did not remember Derwin, being so young when he died. The pictures and words coming from his own pen opened up a chance for them to reconnect with someone that they had loved and lost. The healing not only helped me go forward, but helped them as well.

When the children in our world are affected by grief, the most important thing that we can do is love them. As we encircle them in the arms or our love and listen to them, we will grow in our understanding of what it is that they need.

Their questions may seem deep and complex, but our answers need to be simple. As we avoid long explanations and address the concern that they have in that moment, we will help them to work through their grief and make needed adjustments in their world view.

A very simple demonstration of death is to show the child a lifeless glove. It is like our body. When the spirit is inside the body, there is life, just like when our hand is inside the glove. At death, the spirit leaves the body. The body remains here on the earth, while the spirit goes back to God.

Helping our children turn to the Savior in their grief gives them hope for a better future.
Helping our children turn to the Savior in their grief gives them hope for a better future.

Telling children that the deceased is "in a better place" or that "God wanted them to be with him" gives the child a desire to die so that he or she can be with the deceased. It is much better to help the child understand that death is a part of life. We enter this world at birth, and death is the way that we leave it. Some people die when they are old. Others when they are young. We need not be afraid of death, but we do not wish for it, either.

Children need to know that it is okay to be sad and cry when they cannot see their loved one. Sharing memories with them helps us to feel happiness and joy at this difficult time. We may even want to help the child create a project that preserves their memories. As we do so, we help them build trust with us, and enable them to have a more positive world view for their future.

Praying with them gives them the assurance that God is still there for them, that they are loved, and that they can turn to their Heavenly Father during their grief. Talking with them about the Savior's death and resurrection helps them to personalize the fact that they will see their loved one again. The hope that is generated, even though the child may not fully understand, gives a place of peace for them when they need comfort in the future.

Have you experienced a death in your family recently?

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© 2017 Denise W Anderson

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    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 7 weeks ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Thanks, Tamara. It is difficult when a close family member dies. It is as if part of us dies with them. Things are never the same! My tears and prayers are with you and your family at this difficult time! I appreciate your sharing with us.

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 7 weeks ago from No Idea Where

      Thank you, Denise. This is a great grief in life to see our loved ones pass away, even as Christians. My children have experienced it with their father. This article is of great value, and comfort.

      Thank you!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You are welcome, Tamara! Grief is one of the most difficult emotions we will ever experience in this life. No matter who we are, when we lose those that we love, we are deeply affected. Our ability to find hope and an anchor through our Savior enables us to restructure our lives and move on. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      What a tragic situation, Dora! I am sure that the child appreciated you speaking up in her behalf. We don't realize what happens when we continually relive traumatic events and children are involved. They are deeply affect, especially when it is their parents that they have lost! I appreciate you telling us about this incident as an illustration of what can happen!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      That is what happened to me, Bill. I didn't come to terms with Derwin's death until I had children of my own and they were nearly teens! When I did finally process it, I felt a load lifted off my shoulders. Since then, I have been able to help others process their grief when close family members have passed on. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      That is the best way to do it, Eric, talk about it until you know that they understand. Communication is one of the best tools that we have to deal with our emotions, and when we help our children to communicate their feelings, we give them a wonderful asset that will bless them throughout their lives. Thanks for your insightful comments.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image
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      Denise W Anderson 2 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      You are right, Carolyn, we must not let death define who we are. In order for us to do that, we work through our grief and make those changes in our world view that allow us to adopt new roles and keep our attitude positive. I appreciate you sharing your experiences.

    • Tamara Moore profile image

      Tamara Yancosky 2 months ago from No Idea Where

      Yes, we need to remember that there is HOPE through Jesus Christ! Grief does change children, and regular people, too... Yet, no matter the horrors and atrocities of the world, I know we must remain positive, and we can do so through His Holy Name! Thank you for this post :-)

      Hugs,

      Tamara

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Denise, thanks for this insight into what happens with the child who is grieving. I knew a child who watched her mom gunned down, and her grandparents kept on retelling the story in her presence even though she begged them not to. I had to explain to them that they needed to consider her feelings. They thought she should just get over it. Your article is very helpful.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I know it changed me as a teen.....not necessarily for the better...it's taken me a long time to come to terms with the death of a loved one. :)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 2 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Very well done. I figure the way I worked with death with my small children was mostly about talking about it in general. They all seemed to get it. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Carolyn M Fields profile image

      Carolyn Fields 2 months ago from the USA

      Excellent post. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I have known death of people very close to me. My first experience was as a young child (grade school) when a neighborhood child passed away. It does change your world view. You must not let it define who you are. It is another life lesson, from which we must learn.