Weeping Isn’t Wimpy: Teaching Our Kids to Grieve

Whether boo-boos on the playground, broken hearts from high school crushes, or life-changing losses of loved ones, our children will face seasons of lament. As parents, we know this truth because we have lived it.

Mother of three Tish Harrison Warren is well-acquainted with this reality. A renowned Christianity Today columnist and bestselling author, Warren headlined Rooted’s Birmingham conference to share insight from her recent book on suffering, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work, or Watch, or Weep. She candidly discussed her own season of rapid fire grief-after-grief. But her account, though devastating, veered refreshingly away from “woe is me” and steered faithfully towards “great is he.” Warren explained how, amidst tremendous grief, she learned to stay in communion with the Lord and fought to believe in his goodness. She described her sequence of grief using three words from a compline prayer in The Book of Common Prayer: weeping, watching, and working. Throughout her book, Warren suggests that entering into these three stages of grief can help those who are mourning “walk the way of faith without denying the darkness […and discover] what trusting God might mean in the midst of [suffering]” (p. 20).

Following her exhortation during the lecture, I used her prescribed framework to examine one of my own past sorrows. I concluded that joy and peace could have more quickly eclipsed my long-held grief had I learned this prayer-based approach to lament earlier in my life. This realization led me to ponder how modeling prayerful weeping, watching, and working at home for our children might encourage them to follow these steps themselves. In so doing, perhaps we could direct children to experience the comfort of Christ’s nearness, uncover the surprising blessing of suffering, and magnify the strength God gives us to persevere in the aftermath, all while abiding in him as opposed to evading the pain.

It starts with weeping. That I can do. And yet, I don’t always. Instead I self-medicate with our culturally approved means of emotional suppression: work, media, hobbies, and relationships. As we scroll our way through life, our children may have rarely, if ever, seen us sit in grief. And we have probably never encouraged them to weep. We have seen them shed tears from the moment they were born. As they grow, we have encouraged them brush off bumps and suppress overt emotion. We have offered countless means of soothing and distraction, fast-forwarding past feelings rather than pausing to experience and evaluate emotions.Perhaps our hasty redirection accidentally suggests that big boys and girls don’t cry when, in fact, Jesus wept. The Son of Man mourned with his faithful friend Mary.

Jesus did not dodge the discomfort of entering his dear friend’s grief. Weeping in front of our children is not comfortable. But the call to follow Christ is not a call into what is comfortable. Christians are not guaranteed painless ease; quite the contrary.  We can, and must,communicate this truth to our children. We can start by weeping at home.

As we weep, let us invite our children into our suffering and prayers. We should first explain to them the greater “why” behind our grief (the beauty and perfection of God’s creation broken by the sin of humanity), and then, with discretion, share details of our suffering. Then may we invite them to pray with us so that they hear us praise the Lord and petition him in the same breath. In seasons when it is too difficult to pray our own prayers, as Warren experienced, may we invite our children to read with us the prayers of other saints. No matter how we pray, let us model for our children that no sorrow is too grievous, no burden too heavy, for us to bring to Jesus.

Thankfully the Bible teaches us that though sorrows and weeping may last for a night, joy comes in the morning(Psalm 30:5)! Scripture doesn’t specify how long “night” lasts, though in the case of Warren’s experience, compounded griefs may lead to months-long “nights.” Yet, she warned, it isn’t prudent or righteous to stay there. Enter: the watching phase.

Warren described a necessary, willful transition to a period of watching for how God could be at work amidst suffering. Though I winced at first, thinking this sounded a little too Silver Linings Playbook to really be biblical, Warren is right: the Bible is chock-full of examples of how humanity’s intents for evil were woven by God into his divine, redemptive tapestry for good. To clarify, watching is not a call to vigilant investigation and analysis of our trials, but rather a call to bow our heads, close our eyes, and ask God to help us see him at work for good.

Our children can join us in prayerfully examining the situation and offering their insights about what God could be doing in our midst. By inviting our children to watch us openly, courageously transition from weeping to watching (as soon as we can muster the grace to do so), we point our children’s minds and hearts towards seeking his narrative of redemption in all circumstances. As we watch together, God may mercifully reveal gospel strands woven into our sufferings. Even through pain and death (literal or figurative), God shines joy and life in the darkness when we seek refuge in the eternal hope of Jesus.

Witnessing God’s work in the watching phase mobilizes us into the working stage: joining God in the work he is doing. Warren cautioned against two potential pitfalls of this phase: (1) that we deem prayer as merely passive rather than a key part of working, since “our prayers shape our actions,” and (2) that we let the work itself become a means of escape.

As we identify and invest in the area(s) where God is working amidst our grief, we can invite our children into the work as well. Perhaps the work is tangible, such as supporting a worthy cause together. The work could be more subtle: ie, recognizing idols that God exposed in our hearts through the season of watching, and repenting in response. We can then share that process with our children in a nuanced manner. No matter which shape the working phase takes, we must hinge the work on prayer. In the desperation of the weeping phase, prayer seems obvious. In the curiosity of the watching phase, prayer feels natural. But the working phase is where we solidify the model of “pray without ceasing” for our children. This is when we pray not out of selfish ambition or perceived need, but out of a desire to glorify and commune with him.

If we first dare to weep with our children, and trust God to teach them as they enter the journey of grief with us, perhaps they will learn to weep, watch and work. In so doing, may they discover how to face the dark nights of their lives with faithful eyes fixed on the goodness of God.

Regan serves as the Director of Children’s Ministry at Redeemer Community Church in her hometown of Birmingham, AL, where she lives with her husband and two preschool-aged sons. Previously she worked for Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

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