Children are often thought to be too young to understand and cope with their grief. However, if given the proper support and understanding, they have a natural capacity to grieve and heal.
“First and foremost, grieving children need honesty. They need the truth about their loved one’s death and how it happened in ways that they can understand. The explanation should be simple, but truthful,” explains Karen Grant, LCSW, children’s program developer for Halifax Health-Hospice BeginAgain Lawrence E. Whelan Children’s Grief Center.
Since 1979, Halifax Health – Hospice has compassionately provided care and services to Central Florida communities, with the non-profit organization’s bereavement program for children recently recognized with a 2015 Award of Excellence for program innovation by the Florida Hospice and Palliative Care Association.
Halifax Health-Hospice’s BeginAgain Lawrence E. Whelan Children’s Grief Center has gained national recognition for its successful programs that allow children the opportunity to process their grief with the assistance of licensed, master’s level counselors who specialize in children’s grief along with a specially trained and supervised team of volunteers.
One of the center’s most popular programs is Camp BeginAgain, which helps children and teenagers, ages 6-18, heal following the death of a loved one. Held at various times throughout the year, the weekend retreat combines recreational and sharing activities to create common bonds among campers who are experiencing similar emotions. Campers share in grief support groups to learn how others cope with emotions and discover ways to positively express themselves.
“Another one of our signature programs is Hearts & Hooves which is a retreat for families, young children and teens that involves expression through art and horses,” Grant notes, adding, “During this retreat, trained grief counselors guide participants through artistic activities and allow them healing interaction with horses. These activities give children and teens, who have experienced the death of a loved one, a safe and peaceful outlet for their grief expression. We always conclude the retreat with a healing family ritual to remember loved ones.”
Grant says that although it is difficult to do so when each family member is racked with their own grief, children need to feel included and connected to their family in times of grief. She offers these additional suggestions when dealing with bereaved children:
- Children need choices about their participation. Children deal much better with loss when they are given choices, and allowed to participate, or not, in what is happening. For example, children should be given a choice about whether or not they would like to attend the funeral or memorial service. In order to make that choice, they should be informed about the specifics of the service so they have an understanding of what will happen, what they will see and hear and who will be there. If the child does not attend the service, they will need other means to say “goodbye” to their loved one. Even those who do attend may need other means to say “goodbye” as well that are more age-appropriate and meaningful.
- Children need permission to grieve. Let children know it is natural to have many feelings and other reactions when someone dies. Give them permission to feel as they do and talk about it if they wish. Tell them that you will be there for them, and are willing to listen, give them a hug, or help them create their own memorials and rituals. Also, be real about your own feelings. Children look to their caregivers for cues about how to behave in a situation.
- Children need consistent limits and rules. The death of a loved one creates chaos in a child’s world. Often, parents and caregivers in their compassion, attempt to compensate for what the child has lost which often results in slacking off on limits and rules. This causes more harm than good. Limits and rules give the child the necessary parameters for understanding his or her world, which lend to a sense of security. When all else feels out of control, rules and limits provide a feeling of control and safety for children. Therefore, it is essential to maintain the same rules and limits that were in place before the death occurred.
At-risk indicators parents and caregivers should look out for that may indicate their child needs help include: personality change; change in school performance; withdrawal; giving away treasured belongings; saying goodbye to loved ones; loss of interest in activities, friends, or things once enjoyed; sleep or appetite disturbance; drug or alcohol use; and sexual acting out.
“It’s important to remember children’s grief looks different from adults,” Grant says. “They may cry one minute and be off playing having fun the next. This does not mean they are not impacted by loss. It simply means that children can only deal with grief so long, and must take breaks. Also, children do not have the intellectual capacity that adults do and as a result, their grief is often disregarded or overlooked. That’s why grief counseling for children is so important,” she adds.
For more information on Halifax Health-Hospice grief programs for children and teens, visit halifaxhealth.org/hospice