Expert insights for helping families facing displacement, a serious diagnosis, the death of a child, and divorce.
All the families you minister to are precious—and many are dealing with struggles and challenges that are oftentimes unseen. As their children’s minister, one of the most important things you can do is to be aware of what families are going through and to continually offer your support. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to be ready to minister to hurting families in practical ways. And your presence, love, and assistance during tough times will leave a lasting impact.
We asked several experts to share their most practical and thoughtful ministry ideas for families who are dealing with displacement, a serious diagnosis, the death of a child, and divorce.
Helping Hurting Families: Displaced Families
Often when a family is in crisis—regardless of the cause—they find themselves displaced from their home, unprepared and without basic personal items.
While this impacts all family members, it can be especially hard on the children. One way to make the crisis less traumatic is to have care kits on hand and ready to distribute. These simple, well planned kits provide a measure of normalcy and the sense that your ministry cares for the family.
Child Care Kit
A care kit for children can include a toothbrush, comb, children’s toothpaste, washcloth, and towel. It’s also comforting to include something small, cute, and furry for kids. A small plush toy can be just the thing to bring some joy to a displaced child. Coloring books and crayons are other helpful items to include. You can also tuck in simple, encouraging notes for children.
Adult Care Kit
Include a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, comb, washcloth, and towel. Disposable razors still in the original packaging and a small container of shaving cream are handy, too. Consider adding a simple item such as a pack of playing cards or a magazine. Include a note of encouragement; recipients appreciate receiving a personal note from the person who created the package.
Small, inexpensive kits like these can have a positive, comforting impact and reduce the trauma of displaced families in crisis.
—Bruce Norton is the chairman for the American Family Crisis Ministry, Inc .
Helping Hurting Families: A Big Diagnosis
When a child is diagnosed with a disability or serious illness, parents are often overwhelmed with new— and often frightening—information. Assaulted by unfamiliar terms and complicated instructions, parents may need help to sort out their “new normal.”
Go along for the ride.
You can help by offering to accompany parents to doctors’ appointments or school meetings; an objective set of ears at these meetings can be a welcome relief. Similarly, provide a journal or notebook for parents to record instructions, list questions, and jot down contact information. Having this information in one place is a great way to help parents feel organized and prepared.
Lend a hand.
In addition, you can support the family by keeping their home life as normal as possible. Other children in the family may need transportation to activities or assistance with school projects; coordinating carpools and homework lets the kids maintain their routines. Stepping in to help with laundry, housework, and yardwork also provides a sense of peace and relief for exhausted parents.
Remember, too, that families may crave a break from the heaviness they’re experiencing. A dinner-and-a-movie night or tickets to a baseball game provide a welcome distraction and an opportunity for family bonding.
Understand the grieving process.
Don’t forget that when a child is diagnosed with an illness or disability, the family will likely experience grief. Parents need supportive listeners as they process the anger, despair, and denial that accompany the grieving process.
—Katie Wetherbee is a special needs expert, author, and columnist for Children’s Ministry Magazine.
Helping Hurting Families: A Child’s Death
When families lose a child, they’re in a dark room of grief with only one way out: the Door of Hope—
and only the parents of that child are allowed to open that door. As their church family, we get to sit with them, grieve with them, and listen to them until they’re ready to reach for the Door of Hope. We must not allow ourselves to get so uncomfortable in the grief that we rush ahead of them to open the door. We try to offer hope by saying things like “The pain will get better” or “At least they’re with Jesus now.” While both may be true, parents can’t hear these things through the pain of grief. Here are practical ways you can surround families during this loss.
Create a grief calendar.
It’s important to create a grief calendar for the family that a few people in your church have access to. These people could be your senior pastor, children’s ministry leader, the child’s Sunday school teacher, and other adults who have close contact with the family. On that calendar, mark at least one year’s worth
of special dates: the child’s birth date, the date of the child’s death, monthly anniversaries of the death, and any other important dates in the family’s experience. Ask the group who has access to the calendar to send notes, emails, and make gentle contact with the family on those dates to remind parents that their child isn’t forgotten.
Inform the family of special services.
When it comes to holidays and church events such as child dedications, be especially considerate of the family’s fragility. Inform the family ahead of time so they aren’t surprised during the church service.
Acknowledge the family’s loss.
Whether it was an infant’s stillbirth or a 10-year-old’s death, it’s important to talk about the child’s passing. Our human tendency is to not want to bring up the name of the child because we don’t want to hurt the family. In reality, they’re longing for people to say their child’s name. Knowing you remember their child is an important part of their healing process.
Remind yourself and others that it’s okay to be angry, to question the situation, or to even be upset with God. Our God is a great big God who can handle our emotions. He knows how it feels to lose a child.
There’s a great deal of Scripture that speaks of both mourning and comforting. In each one, mourning comes first. God blessed us with the compassion and empathy to mourn with those who mourn before we attempt to comfort those who need comforting.
Coordinate for physical needs.
Meals, yardwork, cleaning, and other forms of physical help with daily chores are an incredible blessing to families walking the journey of grief. The key to this is not asking what you can do to help or saying, “Call if you need something.” Just do it. Show up with your lawnmower. Drop off lunch. Families in the midst of grief aren’t able to think through what needs to be done, and they certainly won’t reach out for help with specific tasks.
Cast a wide ministry net.
Remember that the death of a child in your ministry rocks all the other families. It hits close to the heart and causes a feeling of anxiety among other parents. Make time to listen to your families, especially the parents. Offer to talk with their children about the death. And have a butterfly release or other ceremony so all your families have a way to actively engage in the situation and say goodbye.
—Annie Willems is the director of Calvin’s Hats (calvinshats.com), an organization that serves grieving parents of infants. She’s also a children’s ministry director.
Helping Hurting Families: Divorce
Divorce is the most common reason you’ll need to step up and lend extra support to a family. With so many marriages ending in divorce, you’ve almost certainly got families in your ministry today who would benefit from these ideas.
While You Were Away
Make a package of information containing the lesson for the week (including a lesson summary, crafts, take-home pages, and upcoming events). Email this information to both parents (even if only one parent attends your church) every time the child isn’t present, which can be every other weekend. This small effort doesn’t take much time, but it lets the child feel more included and keeps the family involved in what’s going on in children’s ministry.
The “Other” Parent Night
Another idea is to host an evening event or program such as a movie or game night where the child can bring the other parent to church to participate in something fun. This is a great opportunity for you to meet one of the most important people in the child’s life and let “other” parents know you care about them and their child. They may never come to your church again, but at least you’ve expressed to them how important they and their child are to you and your church.
During a Divorce
The single most practical thing you can do for children who are going through their parents’ divorce is to start a support group program like Divorce Care 4 Kids (dc4k.org). This type of program teaches children practical steps for dealing with their circumstances and emotions, and it points them to Jesus as their ultimate source of hope and healing. Children of divorce need help understanding and identifying the intense emotions they’re feeling (many of which they’ve never felt before). Free resources such as the “My Feelings Workbook” (available at iamachildofdivorce.com) can also be printed and provided to the child.
Finally, with the parents’ permission, use email, Facebook, Instagram, and other communication to correspond and let children know you’re thinking about them. With everything that’s changing in the child’s life, a weekly contact from you will help provide at least a small sense of continuity. This also gives you the chance to open up a line of communication with the child. Keep a copy of all correspondence, and even copy another known and trusted adult on all communication as well.
Wayne Stocks is the founder of Divorce Ministry 4 Kids (divorceministry4kids.com)
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