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A Child’s Terminal
Illness

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A child’s terminal illness is one of the most wrenching,
heartbreaking experiences a family can experience. As a children’s
minister walking this unbearably difficult path alongside a family,
it may be difficult to see past your own anguish — but these
families need you now more than ever. The Children’s Hospital in
Denver, Colorado, is renowned for its quality healthcare services
and compassionate care for ill children and their families. Geri
Nelson, a licensed clinical social worker and coordinator of
bereavement services; Reverend Vanessa Owen, a staff chaplain; and
Reverend Claudia Schmitt, also a staff chaplain, collectively offer
these words of advice for children’s ministers helping families
through the terminal illness of a child.

Good Move

  • Focus on how the family feels. Families need you to not be
    afraid of their child’s illness, death, or pain. Be open enough to
    simply listen without feeling the need to give advice or “make it
    better.” Allow families to talk about their child, tell stories,
    share memories, and laugh.
  • Realize that the family is suffering tremendously, regardless
    of what you say or do. Offer your love and genuine care, not
    solutions. There’s nothing that can take away their sorrow.
    Families simply need people who are willing to walk through “the
    valley of the shadow of death” with them.
  • Offer specific assistance. Proactive and practical help is
    often overlooked, though it offers great support. The key is to
    offer specific tasks you can do. “Are there groceries I can pick up
    for you?” “Can I mow your lawn?” Don’t assume because parents
    aren’t calling that they wouldn’t welcome help. Make it easier for
    them to accept help.

Bad Move

  • Don’t put responsibility on the family. Most of us at some time
    have said to someone who’s struggling, “Please, just let me know if
    there’s anything I can do.” A family coping with terminal illness
    and death often won’t have the emotional or even physical strength
    to pick up the phone and ask for help. Often, parents are so
    overwhelmed they don’t know what to ask for or what would be
    helpful.
  • Don’t disappear. Be brave enough to approach a grieving family.
    Many people say that after the loss of their child, people
    disappear. Friends and family stop calling. Workmates turn the
    other way. Confronting grief is an incredibly difficult and scary
    thing to do; that’s why avoiding it is a common coping tool. Grief
    must be attended to — by the one who’s grieving and the community
    surrounding that person. By simply showing up with care and
    compassion, you’ve extended a precious gift.
  • Don’t try to take away people’s grief. We take people’s grief
    away when we try to defend God or supply philosophical statements
    explaining away the situation. Grief is personal. There’s no wrong
    or right way to experience it. Change your view of grief by seeing
    it as a friend and not an enemy. Grief is the natural process of
    healing one’s broken heart.

Welcome Words

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You probably won’t have the right words to say. In fact, it can
be more helpful to be compassionately present and allow parents to
express their beliefs and feelings about their child’s terminal
illness rather than searching for the right thing to say.

What-Were-You-Thinking Words

Even if you believe these words, don’t say them. These common
phrases will never ease a family’s pain: “Your son/daughter is in a
better place now” or “God never gives you more than you can
handle.” Educate yourself on the stages and symptoms of grief. Lack
of understanding often results in damaging behaviors and
statements: “You shouldn’t feel like this” or “You can’t think like
that.”

     

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