A Child’s Terminal
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
Kids LOVE these Sunday School resources!
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.
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