As we enter this Christmas season, we long for joy. The lights, the sweets, and the shiny packages under the tree show our hearts’ desire for beauty, goodness, and love. We want to see wonder and delight on our kids’ faces as they celebrate the miracle of Jesus’ birth. Yet, the call for “Joy to the World!” can rub salt into our children’s wounds. Presents and parties offer no healing for the hurts our sons and daughters carry. The burden of lost loved ones, failed dreams, and damaged health and emotions feels more heavy than ever. How do we help our hurting kids during the holidays and the months ahead?
Today we welcome therapist, nurse, and mom-of-four Theresa Phillips as she shares the hidden gifts of grief in our kids’ lives. God moves through the hurt to change both the hearts of our children and us, the parents who love them.
Few things are as painful as watching your child suffer. I am a grown woman. I have the experiences, tools, and faith to weather the erratic storms of life. You can throw what you will at me, Life, but please just leave my children be. They are innocent, fragile, and unable to carry the weight of what you bring, oh broken Life.
When my sweet child is hurting, it’s crippling. The pain runs deeper than that of my own heart, and the helplessness can overwhelm to the point of hopelessness. The mama bear in me wants to come out roaring, attacking the source of strife and protecting my child from any pain this world throws her way. But I often end up swatting at shadows–unable to heal, helpless to protect, failing to rescue. Despite my frantic efforts, I am left with a hurting child and a broken heart.
So what are we to do with the desire to fiercely protect and the helplessness we feel when we cannot? It warrants a paradigm shift, dear parents. Contrary to our instincts, the goal is not always to alleviate the pain or shield from the hurt. This only creates dependent, insecure children who are unable to weather life without our protection. No, sometimes the goal is to walk with them through the pain. We help them to make space for their grief.
I once heard author and speaker J. Kevin Butcher give a message about the importance of lament. Lament is written all through the scriptures, which tells us it’s of the Lord. Aside from the Bible’s book of Lamentations dedicated to this grieving process, the Psalms are full of David’s laments over his painful circumstances. There may be bright glimpses of hope in our good and sovereign God at the end of each psalm, but first comes lament. For through lament comes healing.
This message changed my whole perspective toward my children’s pain.
Butcher noted that our children lament everything from not getting the Popsicle flavor they want to true tragedy and trauma. In their early years, their pain may seem trivial as they shed copious tears over not getting to wear their favorite shirt to school three days in a row. But as they grow, their pain becomes darker and more destructive.
Betrayal by a friend.
Gossip that shames.
Bullying that crushes the spirit.
Big or small, the tears are real and the emotions behind them deeply felt.
My first instinct as a mom is to end the tears, fix the pain, and stop the lament. This may be dismissive, telling them, “It’s no big deal. Just move on!” Or I may fly into helicopter-mom mode, wanting to intervene and fix it all. But this urge to hop into my helicopter may leave my hurting child behind and alone.
Now, I am careful to allow them to grieve even the small injustices they feel so strongly. When my 7-year-old is sobbing about eating the peas on her plate, I just hold her close. I let her grieve the pain in her heart and resist the urge to tell her it’s only a vegetable.
Lament invites a whole new way of thinking.
The drive to stop the pain has been the goal from birth. From the moment our babes are born, we want to quiet their crying. As a labor and delivery nurse, I have often observed new parents shushing their fussing newborn. I tell them to resist that instinct and let the baby cry. Those high-pitched screams have a purpose–to clear out the fluid they swallowed during their journey of birth into this world. If newborns don’t cry enough in the first few minutes, they will be left struggling with labored breathing. Wailing helps them to breathe. We must fight this instinct to quiet the crying in the years to come as well. By trying to end the pain, we rob our kids of the opportunity to grieve. They must exercise the muscles of their coping and to learn to weather the continuing pain of this life.
As a therapist working with children and adolescents, teaching coping skills and how to function in life after trauma was certainly part of many sessions. But so was lament. I would tell my clients that painful emotions were like that take-out you left in the fridge a little too long. You could push it back behind the fresh food in the fridge. Or, you could take it out and deal with it by scraping the food into the garbage and washing up.
The first option will result in an increasingly offensive smell emitting from the fridge since rotting food will make itself known! The latter option takes courage initially, but results in cleansing from the “rot” of trauma. Lamentation leads to healing. In therapy, those who have experienced trauma are encouraged to tell their story. Over and over and over. First and foremost comes the release of the pain. The grief. The lament.
You don’t need to fix your hurting child’s pain. Yes, there are certainly times for action and intervention. You can circle the wagons by calling in the support of therapists and case managers and professionals who work on the solution. But in doing so, be careful not to neglect your one job that is perhaps most important of all. You get to walk with your child as they grieve. Hold them as they cry. Listen as they rage over injustice. Be their steadfast anchor in the hurricane of hurt. Resist the urge to cut short the grief and remove the pain. To rescue. To shield them from the storm.
This means you are in the storm as well. Your son or daughter’s pain and trauma are winds of pain whipping against you. But your love and faith enable you to weather the storm. It is your strength and presence that teach them how to do the same.
Remember the storms of life keep coming, particularly for children who have experienced trauma. Each life stage peels back a new layer of grief for what’s been lost. As you show that storms are survivable and point to the calm waters waiting on the other side, they will approach the future with less trepidation. You have not robbed them of the necessity of grief but have shepherded them through it.
As we help our hurting kids during the holidays–and every day–they will know the heart of the true Shepherd whose strength and mercy never fails.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
who comforts us in all our troubles,
so that we can comfort those in any trouble
with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ,
so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
Theresa Phillips is a mother, author, nurse, and mom-encourager. She runs a crazy household of 4 young kids and moonlights as a labor and delivery nurse where she has the privilege of inaugurating women into this amazing society of motherhood. Before nursing, she was a therapist specializing in marriage and family therapy and had the honor of helping those in crisis. Now she marries all three areas of experience into a powerhouse of encouragement for moms.
Theresa discovered that motherhood is way harder and more profound than she had ever imagined. She has made it her mission to support women in this amazing role: to not only survive the chaos that is daily life, but to thrive. She’s like your midwife, best friend, and therapist all rolled into one! For regular encouragement in this crazy mom life, follow The Gritty Mama on Facebook or Instagram.
One of the greatest gifts we can provide for our hurting kids is prayer.