Helping children and their caregivers through a global disaster
Published on: 06-04-2020
Our church, like the world we live in, has been forever changed by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Whether you’re still in quarantine or trying to get back to normal, there are children who have been affected by this situation and may be confused, frightened, or even grieving the loss of family members as a result of COVID-19. Jesus calls more than trained counselors to show compassion for the grieving (Mark 10:13, 14). As recipients of God’s grace, we’re called and equipped to steward the comfort we’ve received (see 2 Cor. 1:3-7).
Ministry to grieving children can be perplexing, but there are a few simple, yet effective, ways church leadership can coordinate a response to grief for children and their families during this difficult time, both virtually through phone or video calls, and by following proper social distancing and health guidelines for in-person events.
Tips for You at Home or Church
Children are experiencing fear as a result of this situation, because they don’t fully understand what’s happening and how COVID-19 is affecting people around the world. Parents may not know the best way to talk to their children about the crisis we face. But you can help them understand what’s happening, whether you’re a local church leader or a member with children yourself. Here are a few tips you can use at home or teach to your congregation:
Be honest, give age-appropriate information, and answer the questions children ask directly.
Don’t be afraid to openly express your emotions in front of children. This gives the child permission to grieve rather than feel ashamed of their emotions.
When talking about people who are critically ill or have died, avoid euphemisms like “he passed away,” “she’s sleeping until Jesus comes” or “we lost him.” These abstract concepts only confuse young children. Use the words “died” and “dead” or “very sick.”
If a child asks, explain what physically happens at death: a person’s body stops working, and they’re no longer breathing, moving, thinking, etc.
Help children establish a living memory of a person or animal that died, whether by planting a tree, making a book of favorite memories, or donating a bench to a park they loved.
Assure children that staying home from school keeps them and other people from spreading sickness and disease.
Remind children that the situation related to this virus is not permanent, and they will go back to school, church, and summer camp in future years.
If you have children, help them feel safe by giving them hugs and letting them call their friends and other family members; spend extra time playing with them and be patient when you talk to them about COVID-19.
Brainstorm creative ways to help children express the uncertainty they feel related to this pandemic. Fear and grief create confusing energy and emotions in children: they need to move, play, verbalize their feelings, write, pound clay, sing, cry, scream, color, run around, and so on. Remember that development takes place through play, and that’s how most children handle stress.1
Tips for Your Church
Offer peer support groups.
When it’s safe to return to church activities, encourage families to participate in Sabbath School, Pathfinders, Adventurer Club, AY programs, and vesper services. These spiritual-social activities provide the space and mentorship necessary for children to recover from grief and fear.2 Adults leading these groups can help them function in ways similar to peer support groups by helping children express their emotions and verbalize their feelings with others in their age group. Adult leaders can help direct conversation without belittling a child, thereby fostering a safe, nonjudgmental environment for them.3
If your community is still on quarantine, provide virtual Sabbath School programs through online video platforms. Pathfinder and Adventurer honors are available online and can easily be done at home or in your backyard. Encourage club directors to organize online video events for children and their families to participate in. Get creative about the ways you now do ministry!
Many churches already offer things such as grief support groups for adults. Consider starting peer support groups for children, especially for older children or teenagers, who have had a close family member or friend affected by COVID-19.4 Be sensitive to their needs and age, and don’t pressure any young person into joining this group to recover, but rather offer it as an option for those who may want to discuss their pain out loud with others to aid in their personal recovery.5
2. Offer resources to keep homes safe.
While most people are currently focused on the pandemic, other types of loss and trauma may have continued or worsened in some children’s lives during this time. Children in your church may be feeling pain from the recent divorce of their parents, they may be dealing with trauma from an abusive home, they may have suicidal ideation, they could be experiencing cyberbullying in this era of more online use, or they may be watching these things happen to their older siblings or between their parents.6
Many news outlets are reporting on the rise of alcoholism in the home, more calls to suicide hotlines, and a rise in spousal and child abuse.7 Christians are not exempt from these behaviors, and, sadly, there may be homes in your church community that are affected by these stressors.
Offer connections to local counselors and mental health professionals in your area who are doing virtual counseling sessions. Offer anger-management support groups. Provide abuse and suicide hotline numbers and educational websites to your members.8 Help parents learn constructive ways to deal with the frustration that naturally builds when family members are stuck at home together 24/7. Do research, educate your congregation on these issues, and find creative ways to deal with them and provide support for the hurting.9
3. Offer counseling.
Counseling is essential for taking traumatized people from hurting to healing. This can bring large benefits for children and families who are struggling more than usual.10 If your church has the means, consider paying a counselor as a ministry available through the church that’s free to members. If there’s a professional counselor in your church who’s willing, ask them to donate a few free hours to provide support for children and families in need.
In one church that I (Joseph) pastored, there was a young man who committed suicide. After his death, his younger brother, who was 11 years old, became very angry and worried that he might end up doing the same thing as his brother, which would bring only more pain to his parents. The counselor helped him to deal with his anger and work through his concerns about following in his brother’s footsteps. He learned how to maintain his own mental health, which helped banish his fear of copying his brother. Helping children learn how to improve their own mental health will have benefits lasting long into adulthood. Forming positive habits at a young age can go a long way in preventing future mental health struggles.11
When providing individual support to the grieving in your community, you don’t need to worry about having the perfect words to say or being an expert in grief counseling. If you have nothing wise to say, sit in silence with a crying child. You may not have answers, but you do have tears (Rom. 12:15). You may not know the perfect verse to share, but you have the Author of the verses dwelling in you, present with you in times of pain. Don’t look away, or don’t send away a child with mere words to be warmed and filled (James 2:16). Instead, just be with them. Listen. Pray. Weep.
4. Offer financial support.
Though finances may be tight right now, your church should try to set aside some funding to help families that have lost their jobs or have lost loved ones during this time. Your church could offer to help with counseling expenses, buying food, tuition costs, and anything else children’s families might need. In cases where a financial supporter has died or been laid off, a child may feel especially burdened to try to earn money to relieve the financial stresses in their life. Providing free meals, offering to help pay tuition expenses, and finding more financially stable church members to be sponsors for young people can help them focus on recovery rather than worrying about money.
Hope Amid Chaos
Churches as a whole are well equipped to guide children and families from grief to recovery. Ultimately, we’re all looking for a better life, and in the promise of Jesus’ second coming we know that our tears, pain, and heartache will be no more! As Ellen White writes,
“We are not to let the future, with its hard problems, its unsatisfying prospects, make our hearts faint, our knees tremble, our hands hang down. “Let him take hold of My strength,” says the Mighty One, “that he may make peace with Me; and he shall makepeace with Me.” Isaiah 27:5. Those who surrender their lives to His guidance and to His service will never be placed in a position for which He has not made provision. Whatever our situation, if we are doers of His word, we have a Guide to direct our way; whatever our perplexity, we have a sure Counselor; whatever our sorrow, bereavement, or loneliness, we have a sympathizing Friend.”12
In the midst of all this chaos, we have hope, we have a Comforter, a Counselor, and a Friend. God will give you strength and guide you, providing for you as you navigate these difficult times.
1 Adapted from Lisa Athan, n.d. “Grief Speaks: Talking to Grieving Children,” accessed Oct. 3, 2019, http://www.griefspeaks.com/id5.html.
9 Nina Agrawal, “The Coronavirus Could Cause a Child Abuse Epidemic,” The New York Times, April 7, 2020, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/opinion/coronavirus-child-abuse.html.
10 Courtney Ackerman, “Grief Counseling: Therapy Techniques for Children and Hospice Care,” PositivePsychology.com, June 19, 2019, accessed May 8, 2020, https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/grief-counseling/.
11 “What Every Child Needs for Good Mental Health: Mental Health America,” Mental Health America, 2019, accessed May 8, 2020, https://www.mhanational.org/what-every-child-needs-good-mental-health.
12 Ellen G. White, The Ministry of Healing, (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1905), pp. 248, 249.