Losing a family member can be especially hard on kids. Here’s how to help them cope.
When I was 8 years old, my parents decided to move our family to Benton, Arkansas to open a Yogi Bear campground. Saying goodbye to our playmates was tough, but sad feelings quickly faded once introduced to our new digs in the Deep South – complete with a putt-putt course, hay rides with Yogi, a Y-shaped swimming pool, visits with nice campers and much more.
Owning a campground suited our family well, yet three years into it we received the tragic news that changed all of our lives. My mother, at age 43, was diagnosed with a fatal neuromuscular disease called ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Due to her illness, she could not speak or move but was able to live on a respirator for several years. She died on Mother’s Day, 1990, just after my 20th birthday.
A Child’s Grief is Unique
We’re all vulnerable to life changes and to the loss of our loved ones,
whether through long-term illness or sudden death. Children require significant attention when someone close to them has died, especially if that person is in their immediate family.
“A variety of factors make the grief of a child unique,” says Lauren
Thurman, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), a child counselor with The Grief Center at Alive Hospice in Nashville. “A child’s age and developmental level will impact his or her ability to understand the concept of death, as well as how he or she responds to the loss of a loved one. Children may also experience grief in small doses over time as they grow and mature.”
Thurman advises parents or guardians to provide simple, clear, honest and specific answers to questions their children may have about death and dying, consistent with the child’s level of understanding.
“Sometimes children who have experienced the loss of a mother or father
are afraid to express their emotions because they don’t want to overwhelm
the surviving parent,” Thurman says. “Let them know you are there
to listen. Children often experience feelings such as sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness and envy when they are grieving. Help them understand that these emotions are normal and OK. Reassure the child that he or she is not to blame for the death of their loved one.”
Thurman also advises parents to address other fears and anxieties. Following a significant death, children have questions about their safety and security. Such as “Who am I?”, “Who will take care of me?”, “Am I safe?” and “Will I survive?” Reassure your child by answering
these questions about their safety and future.
“When a child loses a parent, the relationship with the surviving parent
evolves through the grieving process,” Thurman says. “Some children
become closer to their parent while others experience high levels of stress and tension in the relationship.
Generally, parents who are coping with their own grief in healthy ways are more likely to have children who are demonstrating healthy expressions of grief. Paying attention to one’s personal grief as a parent and the environment that’s established in the home after the loss of a loved one will help promote healing for the parent, child and family.”
Alive Hospice offers bereavement services to any family in their service area, which includes Davidson, Williamson, Wilson, Rutherford, Sumner, Robertson, Cheatham and Dickson counties. Services include individual counseling, support groups, school-based support groups throughout Metro schools and an annual camp for children, Camp Evergreen, for those who have lost a loved one.
“Children often feel isolated and alone in their grief because they feel
as if no one else understands their experience of losing a loved one,”
Thurman says. “At camp you can see the anxiety melt away from their young
faces as they play games and laugh, realizing they aren’t so different
Camp Evergreen in May, Alive Hospice served children, ages 7 to 13. Along with grief-related activities, campers experience recreational pastimes such as swimming, hiking and basketball. The Hospice of Murfreesboro offers a similar camp for grieving children each year called Camp Forget-Me-Not.
According to Alison McGee, LCSW, a social worker at Willowbrook Hospice in Franklin, people used to think children didn’t understand death or loss and didn’t pay attention to it.
“Some people thought it was best not to talk about it. Now research has
shown us children are deeply affected by a loss, and they need to talk about it,” she says.
McGee said there is a range of what’s normal in grieving, but it’s
sort of like a fingerprint – we all have our own way of grieving. Children need to know it’s OK to ask questions and they need lots of love and assurance about their own safety and the other parent’s safety.
“Children don’t stay with one emotion for very long. They may be
crying one moment and out playing the next,” she says. “That’s
their way of protecting themselves from the intensity of the situation. Children tend to grieve over a long period of time at the level they are able to. As they get older, they perceive things differently and understand the world in new ways, so they may regrieve or grieve more.”
Today, I continue to grieve the loss of my mother at different moments in my life – most recently when I experienced the birth of my first child, yet with the help of family, friends and grief counselors through the years, I’ve learned ways to cope with her absence by keeping her memories alive.
I’ve found healing by sharing memories of my mom with my family, putting
together a booklet of “words of wisdom” by Lois Chase, excerpted from
letters she wrote to each of her children. I’ve also found that volunteering for causes like the ALS Association helps channel purpose into something I sometimes can’t make sense of.
Personally, I’ve found my faith in God to be empowering, along with knowing that my mom continues to “be with me,” my guardian angel of sorts, even though she is not here on Earth, and that someday we’ll be together again. Finally, I relish in the marvelous relationship I now have with my 18-month-old daughter each and every day, because I know what a glorious gift that is.
Cristin Chase Mammarelli is a freelance writer and mother residing in Nashville.
Alive Hospice, 327-1085
Located in Nashville, serving eight counties
Gilda’s Club, 329-1124
Located in Nashville, for children who have experienced the loss of a parent to cancer
Hospice of Murfreesboro, 896-4663
Located in Murfreesboro, serving Rutherford and parts of surrounding counties
Willowbrook Hospice, Inc., 791-8499
Located in Franklin, serving 15 counties
HELPING CHILDREN DEAL WITH GRIEF:
- Encourage children to remember their loved ones and talk openly about memories – good or bad. Remembering loved one helps children heal.
- Whenever possible, offer children choices in what they do or don’t do to memorialize the deceased and ways to express their feelings about the death. They can make a scrapbook, a memory box or write a letter to their loved one.
- Children grieve cyclically. Expect their grief to revisit in cycles throughout their childhood or adolescence.
- Expect children to mourn the deceased and the environment that existed before the death. Children may grieve the “changed” behavior of family and friends. Keep regular routines as much as possible.
- Use community and national resources, grief camps, books about grieving and websites to learn more about helpful ways to deal with the loss of a loved one.
- Above all, provide ongoing love and support.