Helping Kids With Grief
By Wendy E. Young
"Am I still a sister?" asked the young girl that sat
before me, her eyes pleading for an answer. "You will
always be a sister," I responded without hesitation.
Pleased with my answer, she nestled deeper into her
chair. "Then I guess that settles it," she responded. "I
won't have to worry about that anymore."
This child, six months into her grief journey, would
challenge me to stretch the limits of my knowledge, and
question what I thought I knew about children and grief.
She would force me to exit my own comfort-zone, in order
to join with her on her path of grief. Never mind that I
had painstakingly thought through the "best" activities
and approaches to help her navigate the raging waters of
bereavement. She seemed to have charted her own course.
She, and she alone, knew just what it was she needed to
process the death of her only sibling, her younger
brother. It was a short learning curve for me,
thankfully, to see that I was but a witness to her
grief...not a conduit for it.
I sat at the ready, week after week, waiting to see what
direction our session for the day would take us. And
each week, this young girl bravely forged ahead,
exploring every nook and cranny of sadness that occupied
her mind, heart and soul. At times she would laugh and
appear like any other kid, yet her tears betrayed the
facade she tried so hard to maintain.
Over time, she trusted me enough to clue me in on her
"game plan" for grief. Her rules seemed simple enough...
~ Keep smiling
~ Act like everything's okay
~ Don't upset the others around you
~ Don't be one other thing for your parents to worry
~ Keep your tears in check
But, for a 50 minute period, one day a week, she could
touch the pain that she worked so hard to avoid the rest
of the time. From that hurt stemmed drawings, collages
and sculptures...pieces of art that served as tangible
reminders of the loss that she had sustained. Abandoning
the "rules" for those fleeting moments each week got her
out of her head and into her heart...a heart that spoke
of the loss of her brother, as well as the loss of a
father and mother as she once knew them... a mother and
father that were previously untouched by the clutches of
She pounded clay, smashed blocks, drew pictures, told me
stories and sometimes sat in silence. She made it clear
that she would call the shots and I was pleased to let
her. She was my teacher and I, her willing student.
What Kids Say About Grief:
The child depicted in the prior scenario portrays the
experience of many grieving children. Children will
often minimize their grief, so as not to add to the
burden of those that grieve around them. It is not
unusual for children to say something similar to the
"I didn't want to say anything or mention anything that
would make my parents even sadder."
"I wanted to pretend like everything was fine...that if
I acted that way long enough, maybe it would come true."
"I didn't want to see my mom cry anymore. She was sad
enough. I didn't want her to worry about my grief, too.
I just kept it to myself."
What Parents Say About Grief:
It is not uncommon for parents to want to also shield
their children from their grief.
Parents have said such things as:
"I don't want my kids to see me crying all of the time."
"They deserve to have as normal as a childhood as
"I need to give them a sense of normalcy."
Here's what the kids have said in response:
"I wish my mom would cry in front of me. Then I could
hug her and tell her I was sad, too!"
"I feel like I'm supposed to be done with the crying
already. I never see my mom or dad cry anymore and I
think that something must be wrong with me."
"It's like everyone else forgot about my sister, but
~ Let your child know that he/she will experience many
different feelings when it comes to grief.
Tell your child that he/she may feel sad, mad, relieved,
scared, lonely, and lots of other feelings. They may
feel more than one feeling at a time. That is okay. Let
your child know that grief is confusing even to adults.
Keep reminding your child that you are there to talk
whenever he or she needs.
~ Don't expect your child to come to you.
Keep opening up the door to conversation with your
child. Just because your child says he has nothing to
say one day doesn't mean he won't another day.
~ If your child is hesitant to open up, ask more
specific questions such as:
"What's been the hardest thing for you since your
"What do you miss the most about your dad?"
"What's one of the silliest things you remember ever
doing with your sister?"
"What's one thing you would want to tell mom if you
"What helps you the most when you are feeling sad?"
"When you feel angry, how can I help you?"
~ Share your feelings with your child.
This will help normalize that grief stays with us for
awhile. There is no "appropriate" time frame for grief.
~ Give lots of hugs
This is good for your child and good for you!
Finally, remember what William Shakespeare had to say
"Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
Helping Your Child Open Up.