|Talking With Children About a Life Loss|
So often we only think of life losses and grieving in relation to death of a person, usually a relative. However we, and our children, experience a great variety of life losses besides a death for which we experience a period of grieving. How we cope with the various life losses that impact us and our children sets the stages for how children will cope with and process the many life losses they will experience throughout their lives.
Children are resilient and can, with the proper support, understanding and time, process the grief they are experiencing. When these elements are not in place children will express their needs to process the grief through behaviors and emotional outlets which are counter-productive to themselves and their families. We encourage you to process your own grief and to support the children in your care with these guidelines:
Children look to the adults in their lives as role models. How you process the grief you experience will be a guide for them. It is best not to hide your grief but to share your feelings and experience in a manner that is age-appropriate for the child or children. This will help your children express their feelings.
Talk to your child about the life loss as soon as possible. Whether it is a death, divorce, lost job, or move, gently explain what has happened and the immediate consequences and/or changes that may occur. Share the emotions, such as crying, that they may see expressed by the adults.
Explain the life loss in terms the child can understand. Use proper terms, especially with a death, so that children don’t confuse events (for example, referring to someone as "sleeping" instead of "dead").
Express your own feelings opening and honestly. This allows children to learn that it is appropriate for them to express their feelings. Do be cautious that your feelings of fear or anxiety not overly frightening to the child.
Do not force feelings of grief. Children need to express their feelings in their own way and time.
Listen attentively to your child’s words and behaviors. It is their way of communicating their needs. You may need to gently ask questions for clarification and better understanding.
Maintain routines as much as possible. This provides a sense of security for the child and yourself. Familiar locations, routines and schedules bring comfort in difficult times.
Allow your child to participate in the activities and rituals at their ability level: helping to pack in a move, attend a funeral at a death, or participate in visitation schedules in a divorce.
Remember to show patience, understanding, sensitivity and compassion. Life losses are difficult. Both children and adults need time and support as they process their grief and come to acceptance of the loss and the changes that have resulted.
Learn how to support older children during times of life losses.
Get information on training programs targeted to foster parents and professionals working with children and grieving.
Examples of Losses in Childhood and Adolescence
death of a parent, grandparent, or sibling
death of a classmate and/or friend
loss of a mentor or teacher
death of a pet
brother, sister, or friend moves/leaves
parent is unavailable (e.g. alcoholism)
end of a friendship
teddy bear or favorite toy
wrecked car or motorcycle
lost symbolic property
body part (arm, leg, teeth)
body organ (eye, transplant)
identity (e.g. aging, self-perception)
self-esteem through "put-downs"
loss of innocence (menstruation, sex)
familiar body (puberty, adolescence)
failure to be chosen
rape, incest, physical/sexual abuse
loss of a dream
tornado or hurricane
move from one location to another
change of schools
remarriage of parent(s)
new baby in home
not being able to drive
held back a grade
giving up alcohol or cigarettes
changes of daily routine
family meals end
taking care of someone or something
change in eating patterns
From "Growing Through Grief" by Donna O'Toole
Coping with the separation from a loved one for children (and families)
Children need ways to express their loss and to find ways to keep the person close in the heart and mind. Here are some suggestions from children and their families. Adults need to be sensitive and aware of the children’s grieving process and support them in finding ways to both mourn and find comfort.
• Keep (and wear) clothing belonging to the person
• Keep pictures and an item(s) that belonged to the person
• Share stories and memories with other family members
• Prepare the person’s favorite foods on special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays)
• Engage in the person’s favorite activities
(watch favorite shows/sports, play favorite games)
• Share difficult activities with someone you trust
• Share hugs and tears with other family members and friends
• Draw pictures of special memories or feelings
• Take special items to the cemetery
(favorite flowers, foods, pictures, etc)
Suggested reading for children and their families:
After the Funeral
by Jane Loretta Winsch (Paulist Press, 1995)
- Victoria Stephan
We suggest starting with the books listed here, and we welcome your suggestions for other books to add to the list. E-mail your comments and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggested Books for Children
Preschool through 3rd grade (ages 3 through 8)
Aarvy Aardvark Finds Hope by Donna O'Toole (Celo Press, 1998)
The Accident by C. Carrick (Seabury Press, 1976)
About Gramma by Vaunda M. Nelson (So China Printing, 1988)
A Father Like That by C. Zolotov (Harper& Row, 1971)
Friends by Helme Hein (Aladdin Books, 1986)
Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (Putnam, 2000)
4th through 8th grade (ages 9 through 13)
Am I Still a Sister? by Alicia M. Sims (Sims Publications, 1986)
An Elephant in the Living Room by Jill Hastings and Marion Tuppo (CompCare Press, 1977)
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White (Harper & Row, 1952; also on DVD)
The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter (University of New Mexico Press, 1976)
Bridge to Terabithia by K. Paterson (Avon Books, 1977; also on DVD)
Children Facing Grief by Janis Romond (Abbey Press, 1989)
9th through 12th grade (ages 14 through 18)
After Suicide by John Hewitt (Westminster Press, 1980)
Anne Frank: A Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (Doubleday, 1952; also on DVD)
Brian Piccolo: A Short Season by Jeannie Morris (Dell, 1972; also on DVD)
Eric by Doris Lund (Lippencott, 1974)
I Heard the Owl Call My Name by M. Craven (Doubleday, 1973)
Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom (Random House, 2002)
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch (Hyperion Press, 2007)
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (Random House, 2004)