My heart aches as I type these words. There are some mamas going to bed without their babies tonight, or more likely not sleeping at all because they can't believe it's really true. My eyes brim with tears as I imagine the pain they must be feeling.
I've been studying what the Bible has to say on suffering A LOT these past few weeks as I process the suffering going on in our own lives with Caleb's diagnosis. As I heard the reports and saw the status updates on facebook, I began to think about the fact that a bunch of elementary kids are going to go to bed tonight with questions. I am by no means a psychologist or counselor, but I firmly believe that helping kids see situations biblically, tragic or otherwise, is truly the most beneficial thing we can do for them as parents. So, here are some thoughts:
First of all, my kids are young and I've chosen to shelter them from this tragedy. If they had older siblings in school, or they, by chance, happen to hear things in the near future, I will give them as simple and non-scary explanation as I can. If your child is blessed enough to be completely clueless about what happened today, I don't think there's anything wrong with keeping it that way.
Second, kids understand and pick up on way more than we give them credit for. Don't make it a big deal if it's genuinely not a big deal to your child, but don't assume that they don't get what's going on. If you know that your child is aware of the situation, gently ask them what they think about it. I wouldn't use scary terms, just something non-threatening like, "What do think about what happened at the school in Connecticut today?" Feel them out about how it's affecting them and go from there. Again, I would only do this if they know about.
If they're in elementary and they'll be back in school on Monday morning, chances are at least SOME of the kids are going to know about it in their class. Sigh. Here's where it gets a little more tricky. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just put them in a little bubble? I know my natural mama-instinct is to never let them leave the house again when I hear about stuff like this, but obviously, that's not the solution. I, personally, would rather have talked to my child myself about what happened and give them time to filter and process it over the weekend with some parental and biblical insight vs. a 2nd grader's dramatic (and possibly exaggerated and scarier) version. There's also a good chance they'll hear about it at church on Sunday as prayer requests are lifted up for the families involved. There's really not going to be an awesome chance to completely shelter your elementary aged child from this one.
In my years of working with kids, here's what I imagine might be going through your child's head and would be good to talk through with your child:
"Is God in control of this?"
This is a hard one. If you say "yes" then it sounds like God isn't really all that loving like we teach them that he is (because would a loving person really let something like this happen?).
If we say "no" then it's scary because that means that there are some types of evil that are outside of the control of this God that we serve and claim is so powerful. Suddenly he doesn't seem so powerful anymore. He supposed to help us not be afraid when we have bad dreams... what about when those bad dreams come true?
The truth: God IS in control. This is what Scripture tells us and so that is what is true. When all else is crumbing around us, it is so comforting to know that there is a constant in the midst of it. Remind them that in crazy, uncertain times like this, the Bible is really the only place that we can find comfort. Take them to specific Bible verses that remind them that God really is in control (or even using a story they're familiar with, like Joseph, where suffering was used for good... "What you meant for evil, God intended for good"). It is harder to understand during times like this, but it doesn't change the fact. I think if we take away the fact that God is in control of everything, we pull the rug out from underneath our faith and are left with very shaky (and scary) ground.
In her book, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow, Nancy Guthrie points out that when we expect God to spare us from the effects of sin (sickness, tragedies, etc.) "we're mistakenly expecting in this age what God has reserved for the next." Are we expecting God to create a "heaven on earth" right now? That thought has been profound for me. We long for heaven for a reason. It's perfect. That's not where we're at right now and we are expecting the wrong thing from God when we expect him to make the here and now what he has promised us for the future. A world without sin and all the effects it brings is the hope we have to look forward to. In times like this, we are reminded all the more why we want it and what it has to offer. I know that's a little deep, but I totally think an older kid can get that.
As a parent, I think it's good for us to be able to rest in this fact so that our kids can see that we truly believe it. Don't assume it'll be over their heads. And even if it is (because it's a little over all of our heads, right?), they can at least rest in the fact that Mommy and Daddy know it's okay, so it is okay even if there's a little stinker on the playground that thinks it's funny to plant fearful ideas in everyone else's heads.
"Is God loving?"
We all know the Sunday School answer to this, but in times like this, doubts can be raised. If God's in control and he could have stopped this and he is the definition of love, why didn't he? This is also another tough question.
It's easy to get caught up in the details of individual circumstances of suffering. Believe me, I know. I'm living it out right now. For the families of those precious kiddos in Connecticut, they're living it right now. And we're watching and hurting with and for them.
I think there are two ways to answer this question:
1) We have to step back and look at the big picture. God is working out the most loving plan ever through his son, Jesus Christ. He is offering eternal hope that surpasses all the pain of these "momentary afflictions" (2 Cor. 4:16-18, see also Rom. 8:18-30) In a grand scheme of things kind of way, the kind of love he extends to humanity is absolutely indescribable.
2) But it's not just in a big picture way. This love is offered to every person on the face of the earth. Jesus died for the world and that means that his grace is offered to all of the people hurting the deepest hurt they've ever felt right now. By his Holy Spirit, he offers them peace, comfort and strength in a situation that is absolutely devastating. And we can cling to this promise even when we don't know exactly how it's going to look, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28)
"Will God let something like this happen to me?"
I hope this isn't going through your precious kiddos' minds, but if it is, there's no easy answer here either. Kids, especially older ones, will get that they've just entered the world of "there's no guarantees" much sooner than anyone would like for them to. To this question I would give a hope-filled, honest answer. I'd smile and say, "God promises to never leave us or forsake us. Whatever situation he puts us in, he'll be right there with us." This may seem like an answer that skirts the question and doesn't offer much reassurance, but when I would have fears of dying in a house fire or car accident or any other horrible scenario I imagined as a child, my parents never brushed it off and said, "Oh, that would never happen!" because I knew it could. Telling me it wouldn't happen wouldn't make the fear go away. Instead they gave me truth and hugged me and said, "God will never let anything happen to you a moment before you're supposed to be in heaven with him." They'd often follow it up with dreaming with me about what kinds of plans he might have for me and say things like, "I wouldn't be surprised if God has plans for you to be a missionary or write a book" (both things I frequently talked about wanting to do). Look at the gifts God has given your child and dream with him or her about how God might use those in his or her life. I'm not saying this is the right approach with every kid, but I know it brought comfort to me as a child to be reminded in the midst of my fear of the hope that awaited me and the fact that God was in control of it every step of the way.
Lastly, I think it's huge to not minimize your child's struggles here and make it out to be the "wrong response" to question or wonder about God's plan. Jesus was not thrilled about what God chose for him, to the point that he sweat drops of blood as he begged for the cup to pass before he went to the cross. Remind your kids that Jesus can relate to their fear and their questions (Heb. 4:15). In fact, he is abundantly qualified to do so as he went through the scariest experience any human being has ever gone through (because remember, he was not only facing physical pain, but the icky, horrible feelings of guilt for wrong of the whole world all at once... that thought alone can put my stomach in knots... sometimes the guilt of my own personal sin can make me feel sick at my stomach... Jesus felt that guilt along with the guilt of all the rest of my lifetime's worth of sin, plus the sins of all other human beings on his shoulders as he went through the physcial pain as well... shudder!) Okay, so, perhaps without going into that much detail, remind your kids that Jesus most definitely understands the thoughts going through their heads and that they can pour those fears out to him and not be afraid that he's going to think they're "not being very good Christians" by feeling that way.
Perspective is a huge game changer. There's no way that the tragic events that took place today won't be unnerving for kids and parents. That would be inhumane. God made us in his image and part of the way we reflect him is with our emotions. There is no way to not be distraught over such horrible sin. God is disgusted with it as well. We are to hate the sin that took place today. BUT, if we can view this through a biblical lens and pass that truth onto our children, Lord willing, this will be an event that is remembered with tears and prayers, but not with paralyzing fear.
Praying for the families affected in Connecticut, that God would draw them to himself and make himself known to them in a powerful way and that he would be glorified as he brings comfort, peace and strength to them. And praying for all of you parents who will talk with your kids about today's events, that you would have wisdom, peace and the right words to say.