When a Volunteer Dies

I shared last week about the death of my precious friend Tony.  During that time I shared with my Alabama staff friends what we did several years prior when a small group teacher passed away unexpectedly.  As a children’s minister, it is information that you hope you never have to use.  Here is how we have walked through it before:

1.  Support the family.  Be present.  Look for needs to meet.  Help with funeral plans with needed, help with meals, help with cleaning the house.  Help with the kids.  Help others know how to help or keep the crazy people away.

2.  Share information.  If time allows, let volunteers and parents know what has happened.  Share as many details as is appropriate.  People will have natural questions about what happened.  The more you can answer, the fewer questions will be asked.  At the same time, be careful to only share what is definitely known.  Do not share speculation or your own opinions.  Share your plans for addressing the situation with the children at church.  Encourage parents to talk to their kids first.

3.  Share with the children.  When sharing with the children on Sunday morning, or whenever you are together next, keep in mind how familiar the children were with the volunteer.  If most kids knew him or her, talk to everyone at the same time.  If only a small group knew him, consider addressing just that group.  When addressing them:

–  Remind the kids who the volunteer was.  Share a picture if possible.  Some kids won’t remember by name.  Some kids will think it is someone else.  Some kids won’t remember the volunteer at all.  Share the volunteer’s role and why he/she was so important to the ministry.

–  Explain in simple, clear language what happened.  “On Saturday, Mr. Sam died.  We think he had a heart attack” or “Yesterday we learned that Mrs. Sue was found dead in her home.  We are not sure what caused her to die.”  Avoid phrases like “passed away” or “passed on” or “went to heaven”.  These phrases sometimes confuse kids.  Be very, very clear.

–  Tell the truth that we know.  “It is very sad for all of us.  But there is some good news that we know.  We know that Mr. Sam had trusted in Jesus.  We know that the Bible tells us that when he died he was immediately with Jesus in heaven.”

–  Affirm that feelings.  It is ok to be sad.  It is ok to be a little mad.  God understands all of that.  Teach the truth of 1 Thessalonians 4:13, that we do not grieve like those who have no hope.  We do grieve and that’s ok, but we have the great hope of heaven.

4.  Allow kids to ask questions.  Some of them may be goofy.  Some of them may break your heart.  But honor each question. Remember the it is ok to say, “I don’t know”.  Don’t try to explain away God or just turn to easy sounding platitudes.  Help kids see that we don’t understand all of God’s ways, but we know He is good.

5.  Allow kids to respond independently.  Have a time for kids to draw pictures or cards for the family.  If possible, split into smaller groups and have adults with each group to talk about what has happened.  Simple questions such as “What did you love the most about Mrs. Sue?” can help kids talk a little bit.

6.  Recognize every child will respond differently and that’s ok.  Some kids will be super dramatic, even kids that didn’t know the volunteer very well.  Some kids won’t say a word.  Some kids will act totally unaffected.  All of these are normal responses.  Some kids will get overly upset because it makes them think of the death of a grandparent or even a pet.  Many kids will worry about the family and some will worry about their own family.  Every child’s feelings are legitimate.

7.  Provide follow-up information for parents.  Send something home informing parents what you talked about that day, even if you were able to send out information beforehand.  You might have visitors or parents who didn’t pay attention to the previous information.  Include information on signs of grief that might need additional help, such as withdrawal, behavioral changes, violence, etc… and include resources for seeking additional counseling help.

8.  Continue to serve the family.  Sometimes we are great about showing love during a tragedy and then we all go away, leaving the family to deal with the aftermath alone.  Seek ways to continue to support and minister.

What would you add?  What are some other ways to help kids process loss?  

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