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Following tragedy - What NOT to say to your children

The phone rang at 3 A.M.

I jumped because I know the truth.

Only tragedy phones after midnight.

"Pastor Kristine," the anxious mother cried, "Henry won't come out of the closet.  And he has a knife."

Four days prior, six-year-old Henry attended his grandfather's funeral.

I remembered - the little boy seem odd -  he smiled too much - giggled too much - and although he held fast to his mother's hand, Henry seemed disconnected from the tragedy of the death experience.

Something, I thought at the time, was not right with little Henry.

"He wants to die." 

"He wants to die," his mother said through the phone.  "He says he wants to be with his grandfather."

Moments later, when I knocked on the closet door, Henry told me the same thing.  If gramps was living now with Jesus, he said - and heaven was a wonderful place - a better place than this place -  why couldn't he be there?

Why did he have to live far away from Jesus and without his grandfather?

Adjusting reality 

The night ended well.

Henry's mother and I coached him out of the closet, took away his knife - and tucked him into his large, comfortable bed with assurances that heaven can wait.

In the weeks and months to follow, I sat with Henry's family as together we sorted through his odd and innocent view of death and dying.

Following the shooting spree at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, I remembered Henry and his family.

This week, across the nation, millions of American parents will face their children's awful, innocent questions about death, dying, violence and evil.

Here are a few things not to say as we construct our answers. 

Don't say - "God needed that little child in heaven."


Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills children to meet a heavenly quota is a  terrifying idea to a child.

Your little child wants to know why things like this happen.  To lay the cause of it on God's random desire to snatch a life is frightening to anyone.  And you don't believe that - do you?

Consider instead, a more truthful, honest way to support their tiny worlds with comfort.

Say - "Your daddy and I do everything we can to keep you and all of us safe." 

Don't tell lies and believe them to be words of comfort.

Don't say - "You're too young to understand."


Children get it.

They know about evil.  They believe in boogie men, dragons, monsters under the bed.

They know there are forces out there, bigger than they, meaner than they, with the strict intention to do them harm.

And you're the grown up.

Tell them you know about those forces as well.  Remind your child that you are big, strong, capable and able to protect your family. 

Remind your child that your job is to take good care of your children.

And you're good at your job. 

Don't say - "Go to sleep.  Everything will be all right tomorrow." 


This is the biggest lie.

If everything will be all right tomorrow, grief has no meaning.  If grief has no meaning, the loss of a child is insignificant. And if a loss of a child is insignificant, what value is the life of your own child?

Of course - our children are precious to each of us - and so this is a teaching moment for an important lesson; death is a natural part of our experience as creatures.

When a person dies,  our sadness is deep and sometimes hard to bear.  The reason for that is this - when someone dies, there is nothing more that can be done to help, save or recover the relationship.

Tell your child that one of the most important things we learn in life is the necessary lesson of saying goodbye and letting go.

Remind your child that you are there to help in the learning.

Don't say -  "God doesn't give anyone more than they can handle."


This phrase demonizes those of us who are dealt a terrible hand in life.

The truth is - many, many people face circumstances we cannot handle.

Many of us fall to pieces under the challenge we face.  Life is not easy for many of us.  We stagger under the burdens of our difficult lives, we fall into irretrievable pain, suffer and fail.

Don't teach your child to trivialize grief with the old "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mentality.

Instead, teach your child compassion.  Teach your child that bad things happen to all of us - and when they do, good people must step forward and be of use.

Teach your child to comfort others.

The best way to do this is to be of real, serious, honest comfort to your family - especially your children.

And please, don't say - "All of this is God's will."


Last time I checked, no one but God knows the truth about divine will.

Don't teach your child that God, or anyone, "wills" the killing of innocent children.

True, there are holy scriptures to support that kind of craziness, but that's a discussion for another time.

Now, in the midst of immediate tragedy, find words of hope, power, and comfort for your child.

Remember - you're the parent in this situation; with obligation and responsibility to protect the heart, soul, and spirit of your little one.

Show your confidence, compassion and concern in the way you respond to death and violence.

What ever happened to Henry? 


Today, Henry is a grown man, with two children of his own.

But I can't sugar-coat his story; as a child he was sensitive and imaginative.

Although the death of our grandparents and our parents are natural life-events, Henry was changed by the loss of his grandfather. 

As a consequence, even as a grown man, he faces challenges that many of us don't always understand.

I expect the elementary school population of Newtown, CT will carry the same burden.

Our children however, will look at the tragedies of the world through the windows we provide them. The leadership of parenting is a deep source of comfort to our little ones.

And a clear, truthful understanding of the deep meaning of tragedy and death is the greatest resource we can provide.



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