When in doubt, shut your mouth and show love.
Yesterday, a man who has been fighting for his life on and off for years and most recently, for the past 5-ish months lost that battle and died. We had the privilege of briefly getting to know him through some music and kids ministry opportunities and oh my word was his heart ever to connect kids into the church – it was a beautiful thing.
When I got word of his death, I must admit that my heart instantly began to ache for his three teenage-ish kids. He has fought long and hard to stay on this side of heaven for his family but knowing he has now gone, means the fight for his kids hearts has begun.
How do I know? My father lost a long and ugly battle of his own when I was a teenager. As a family, we also endured a long hospital stay until he finally died. Life was turned upside down and in the midst of it, at the news of his death people said some pretty random things to us not realizing how it’d actually be used to tear at our hearts rather than encourage us.
So, not really being a person of influence in these three beautiful kids’ lives to share this info with them I thought I’d share it with y’all (whoever you might be).
Here is what not to say to a child/teen who has just lost a parent:
At least you know he is in a better place. Let’s start with this one most used in the Christian circle. Here is the deal: Yes, at some point in my life, it will be a comfort to know that my Dad has gone to a better place (i.e. Heaven for those who believe) but in that moment, in the rawness of him just having left me, that actually provides little to no comfort. You see, I’d much rather him to have stayed here with me. I’d rather he got to witness all of my life’s events that I am now painfully acutely aware of him missing (driving a car, graduating high school/college, marriage, kids, etc…). Yes, him still alive would actually be much more encouraging to me than his having abandoned me for a better place. And his argued ability to perhaps be able to watch me from heaven, offers virtually no support to my freshly broken heart.
At least he isn’t suffering anymore. This is a hard one because yes, the fact is it’s a true statement. But what goes along with that though his suffering has ended, it has just begun for the teenager suddenly without an earthly dad. True words but not exactly a source of comfort.
God just needed your Dad right now. His work on earth was done and now he’s moved on to a better place until you can join him. Mercy Lord. This is a loaded one because not only does it make God out to care more about His “needs” than you but it also can be interpreted that life with the teenager wasn’t all that good. It makes God seem to be a distant and needy force who cares little for the heart of the one who has just lost a parent. Nothing could be further from that “truth”. Oye.
Jesus won’t give you more than you can handle. Prove it. No really, open up the Bible and find that verse for me in it’s complete form (not pieced together bits from here and there misinterpreted into a catchy bumper sticker). I can honestly say that in that moment, thinking that Jesus felt the death of my Dad was in the realm of things I should “handle” made me want to get as far from Him as possible.
This list could go on but here was my experience in losing a parent as a teenager. From the moment that my Dad died, satan worked overtime to convince me that the reason God “took” my Dad was because God’s heart wasn’t good and most certainly wasn’t for me. Now yes, I’d been taught to know better than that but as I kept on hearing people recite to me the bogus things (and then some) listed above, it kind of acted as fuel to satans fire. I have no idea why God didn’t answer my pleas to heal my Dad this side of heaven. I have no idea why God let us watch him suffer and deteriorate until he was less than a fragment of the man I knew and loved. I have no idea why people expected the faith my Dad had to be of some sort of comfort to me in that moment.
But here is what I do know. I believe in both good and evil. I get that satan still runs around working overtime to deceive as many of us away from the hope that is in Jesus. And I’m talking real, true hope on the most pure and beautiful level. I don’t think the Christian life is filled with pink elephants and cotton candy – I get that there is a battle for each heart, mine included. When my Dad died,the true journey of what I believed began. I struggled for many years with how could a God who loved me have taken my Dad from me so. damn. early.
I finally realized that faith is just that – stepping out on the ledge and believing. Giving up the desire to wrestle for answers and explanations but instead deciding I’m all in and living my life accordingly, as hard as that may be at times. My Dad’s faith eventually became a great source of comfort to me but in that moment, as a teenager that had just lost a parent, his faith felt most like it had turned on me.
I know that the intention of those trying to offer comfort is 99.9% good so can I offer this – usually, the best you can do is just be there and listen (or sit quietly without a word needing to be spoken). Love on those who are hurting. Don’t offer explanations or heavenly encouragements that you have no business offering. Find a way to tangibly love on them and do that. And don’t freak out if they begin to question God – He can totally handle it. He will fight fiercely for the hearts of these teens (and many others) as He did mine but ultimately, that gift of free will stands. Pray for their hearts as you now know that this is a vulnerable moment (and then some, for them). Pray for the parent who is left a single parent in the most difficult years of transition. Pray as you feel led and then pray some more. Showing Jesus’ love to them will be much more effective right now than just telling these broken hearted teens about His love. Amen.