Andrew and Rachel Wilson are parents of two children with special needs. With raw honesty, they offer advice on what to say – and what not to say – when it comes to offering spiritual encouragement to families.
“There were some sort of standard ‘Christianese’ things, which anybody suffering with anything knows these; ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure it’ll be fine. Just trust that it will get better.’ Those sort of things where you just think, you know I don’t know that it will get better; it may not get better for years. It isn’t necessarily a question of how much I’ve prayed or how much faith I have, it may just be that something really sad has happened.”
“You want people instead to say, ‘I’m really sorry. If there’s anything I can do, please let me know.’”
Andrew found that when it came to special needs in particular, there were cultural stereotypes that people would use in attempts to encourage them spiritually along their journey.
“People would say, ‘Oh I’ve seen Rain Man!’ or the ‘magic cure’ that’s quite common; ‘You know a friend of mine who knows this woman who sat their autistic child on a horse and everything got better.’ Sometimes I’m sure they happen, but they’re not always the most helpful comments because those things are pretty rare.”
We don’t always know what to say, especially if we don’t understand what a family is going through. As a result, we run the risk of saying something is more hurtful than helpful. But Andrew says there are helpful ways to offer spiritual encouragement to families who are experiencing suffering.
“In some ways, it’s often very practical things. We want spiritual answers and sometimes the solution is a very practical, everyday kind of thing.”
Rachel offers a few practical examples on how to share the love and compassion of Christ with parents of special needs children.
“We personally really appreciated people saying, ‘I’m sorry, that’s so hard.’ The best thing to do is to not assume anything, but to literally ask people what they need, what helps, what’s the best way for you to interact with them, etc.”
“Just leave things on doorsteps with no strings attached; meals and cakes, for example, and not expect outpourings of grief or for that person to become the biggest confidant.”
Parenting children with special needs is not what most parents hope for, and it brings daily challenges. We can help to encourage parents of children with special needs by remaining sensitive to their needs and responding appropriately.
Andrew Wilson is a pastor at Kings Church in Eastbourne in the United Kingdom, a columnist for Christianity Today, and the author of a number of books, including . He and his wife, Rachel, have three children.How to encourage parents of children with special needs