There are times in our ministries where we are called upon to do very difficult tasks, perhaps one of the most painful is being the person to deliver the news to a child or student about a family member’s death. Everything matters. Our words matter. Our actions matter. Our follow up matters. It’s a very heavy responsibility, and yet it is an honor to be in the inner circle with families in those life-changing moments. Our responsibility is sacred when we are discussing life and death. These conversations must be planned for and prayed over.
Should a children’s or youth pastor be the one to share the news of a family member’s death? First of all, this is completely up to the surviving parent/guardian. We should never make these decisions independently and take it upon ourselves to do this. But when asked, we should accept and be ready for it. In my experience, we are poised at the right position to have this conversation and do the follow-up afterwards. I confidently believe we are capable of doing this and doing it well. Here are a few tips.
1. Ask the Holy Spirit to equip you with the words you need. If possible, confidentially ask a few others to be in prayer for you during your meeting with the family.
2. Prepare the parent/guardian before for what you will say. Work your magic to persuade them to be in the room when it happens. Give them permission to cry in front of the child. Encourage them to respond with affection.
3. Be honest and use age-appropriate facts. You must use the word “dead” or “died.” It will be difficult to get that out of your mouth, but you cannot skirt it with things like, “went away up to heaven.” Yes, we will talk about heaven. But first the facts. This might sound like: “I am about to share some really, really sad news with you. I know this will be very difficult, and that’s why I made sure your Grandma/Dad/Aunt could be here with us. The really sad news I’m going to share is about your Mom. She was in a car accident today and got very, very badly hurt. The ambulance came and did everything they could to help her but the accident was so bad that they didn’t have big enough medicine for her big hurts. Your Mom’s body stopped working . . . that means your Mom died today.” Facts are crucial to the grieving process. They need to understand this at an age-appropriate level and it must be with facts.
4. Let them soak in the very hard facts. Let them cry. You can cry too. It shows that their Mom was important and worth your tears. (You just don’t want to cry harder than the child, because that can scare them.)
5. Answer their questions. When they need more information, they will ask. Those questions might come after your pause or they might come days, weeks, or months later. Answer with facts at their age-appropriate level. Be sure to communicate with their surviving parent/guardian about these conversations so they stay in the loop emotionally with the child or student who is grieving.
6. Now, you can talk about God. But your words are important here. Be mindful that you can accidentally turn God into the enemy by saying things like, “God wanted another angel in heaven so he took your Mom,” or “God took her in her sleep.” One of these makes God sound untrustworthy and selfish and the other makes Him sound like a kidnapper. We need to talk about God in ways that bring hope and healing. “I know your Mom loved God, and God loved her so much. She is not hurting now and she’s with God . . . she is with Him in heaven already.” Then pause again. If the child wants to ask about heaven, they might do it right here by asking you if they will see their Mom again someday. You can then explain they can.
Death is a very difficult thing to comprehend at any age. We can play a critical role in the healing process if we do this well. Don’t run away from this responsibility when asked. After all of this, be sure to stay consistent in that child or student’s life. Don’t avoid the child because you are afraid that you remind them of a traumatic day. The reality is that everything reminds them of that loss for years to come. So don’t run away from them. The fact is you were there for them in a life-changing moment, so stay in their life afterwards just like you would if you were with them in another life-changing moment—such as accepting Christ or baptism. Do not live in fear yourself.
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen,” (Hebrews 13:20-21).