When a child’s parent or other loved one dies, they often feel somehow different from their peers as a result, set apart by their loss. I remember this happening for me very soon after my mom died. At her funeral at the Catholic parish where I attended second grade, walking up the aisle behind the casket with my family as organ music boomed, I saw my classmates sitting all together in the side section. For an instant, I started to smile, but then like a bucket of cold water, a jolt of something I didn’t understand came over me and I felt very strange. When I returned to school a day or two later, I noticed the same sensations as girls in my class congregated around me on the playground. It was nice, sort of, and I knew they meant well, but still it was weird, attention I’d rather not have.
Understanding of children’s grief has evolved considerably since my childhood, fortunately, and many community resources are now available to assist. This fall I finally acted on a long simmering idea and signed up for volunteer training at Fernside Center for Grieving Children and Families here in Cincinnati. Founded in 1986, it is the second oldest children’s grief center in the United States. Families come twice a month, have pizza all together, then separate into age-defined groups from preschool through adults. My first night, as an observer prior to the start of formal training sessions, I entered with some trepidation, sort of a reverse feeling of difference. I had a childhood loss but clearly now I’m an adult, here to learn how to facilitate support groups. I never had the benefit of a Fernside to process my grief. Could I even do this?
That first night I was assigned to a group of older kids in which the main activity was completing a “graphic novel” sheet divided into six blocks. It had headings like “What Happened,” “When You Found Out,” and “Return to School” to guide them in telling their story. From the beginning, I was struck by how normal it all really was. Much of the time there was light-hearted banter, then someone would relate something emotional, which would be heard by the group, quieting the energy for a bit, then teasing would resume. I felt my shoulders loosen. During one of the training presentations I later attended, it was noted more than once that “Fernside may be the only place where the kids don’t feel different from everybody else, because everyone here has had a loss.”
So it turns out, yes, I can do this, because though loss is hard, especially at a young age, what kids need to be supported in grief is straightforward. They need honest, kind words of explanation and encouragement from caring adults, but most importantly they need to be listened to. The challenge arises from our culture’s lack of comfort with talking about death in general. If it’s hard to know what to say to an adult, there’s probably greater fear of saying the wrong thing to a child who has experienced loss of a loved one. Here are a few suggestions from the Coalition to Support Grieving Students on how to support a grieving child.
- Do not try to “cheer up” the bereaved person. For example, saying “It’s ok,” can come across as minimizing what they’re going through.
- Comments beginning with “At least . . .” should be avoided.
- Do not encourage them to cover up their emotions by saying things like “Be strong” or discouraging crying.
- Do not say you know exactly how they feel. Avoid comparing to other losses, your own or others. It could seem dismissive.
- Let silence happen in conversation. Just be there while the child processes thoughts and feelings.
- Use open-ended statements like, “I can only begin to imagine how hard this is.” Or, “I wonder if you’re feeling . . . “
- Withhold judgement. Everyone grieves in their own unique way.
- Let the child know you are there for them.