When a Child Grieves, We All Should Help

Knowing how to help a friend or loved one who is in the throes of grief doesn’t always come naturally.  In fact, the situation leaves many wondering what to say and how to say it, often causing us to say “nothing at all.”   And if it’s difficult knowing what to say to a grieving adult, the challenge can be magnified tenfold when that person is a child.

A staggering 1 in 7 people lose a parent or sibling by the time they are 20-years-old, according to a survey conducted by the New York Life Foundation in conjunction with Comfort Zone Camp (which serves bereaved children across the country).  As a society, it’s time to de-mystify the grieving process.  All of us–neighbors, family, friends, teachers–will some day be in a position to support a child during what will likely be the most traumatic period of their lifetime.

The grief of a child

When it comes to the grieving experience, children are not just miniature adults.  Their situations are different and their emotions are, too.  A 2012 survey of 531 grieving children conducted by the New York Life Foundation, in conjunction with the National Alliance for Grieving Children, reveals some of the children’s thoughts and emotions.

Grieving young people say they want to be treated like everyone else and they want to get back to feeling “happy” and “normal.”  They have trouble concentrating in school, which means a decline in grades for many.  They want to spend time with family and friends, because that helps them feel better (but unfortunately some of those people back away during this critical time).  Like adults, they are faced with a tangle of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness and confusion on top of missing their loved one.

How can you help?

Fortunately, the topic of bereavement is gaining acceptance and momentum nationally, thanks to organizations like the New York Life Foundation which has identified childhood bereavement as a core funding focus.  They, along with other national groups have compiled resources and created programs that make a difference in the lives of grieving children.  If you know a child you’d like to help, the following tips and resources are a good place to start:

Be there and listen.

Even though you might feel uncomfortable talking with a child experiencing grief, this really isn’t about you.  Your attention should be on the child.  Share some of your own feelings, but focus mostly on listening.  Ask open-ended questions that will encourage the child to share their thoughts and feelings.  If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, here’s a great list of what not to say.

Accept their feelings and don’t try to “cheer them up.”

The child might tell you, or show you, they feel sad, angry, confused, or some other emotion.  It’s different for everyone, but working through those feelings is an important part of the process.   You can, though, still offer encouragement.  My dear friend Anna’s daughter recently graduated college and her son is a second year college student.  When their dad, Dave, died 12 years ago, the children were just 7- and 10-years-old.  “I told them, ‘I know we’re going through a hard time, but things are going to get better,’” she said.  Even while she, herself, was struggling, she let them know they would be alright together.  The Coalition to Support Grieving Students has produced an excellent guide on “Supporting your child after the death of a family member or friend.”

Share stories of others who have experienced early loss.

Grieving children often find comfort in talking with, or hearing about, other people who experienced loss when they were young.  The Shared Grief Project was created around the goal idea that “no child grieves alone.”  The online resource features video-taped interviews of athletes and celebrities that experienced major loss at an early age.  Participants talk about their own situation and, at the same time, demonstrate that a healthy, happy, successful life can absolutely be in the child’s future.   Share the site with the child, then work through the accompanying reflection guides together.

Make a difference wherever you are, every day

“Childhood grief happens every day,” said Maria Collins, vice president of the New York Life Foundation.  “It deserves attention every day as well, not just during the holidays, and not just after a national tragedy.”

Being supportive to others facing grief, especially children, helps them and enriches our own lives at the same time.  It doesn’t require a degree in psychology, and our words don’t have to be perfect.  It just takes each of us, making a commitment to making a difference in a child’s life.

For more links to childhood bereavement programs and resources, visit the New York Life Foundation web site.  

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