When we are confronted with grief, we cannot help but think of all that we learned from the children featured in our award winning film, Children and Grief. Producing this film changed our perception of the grieving process and helped us understand what we can do to help people cope with their grief.
Just this last week, two people we have known and loved have passed away. A lovely teenage girl fell asleep one night and never woke up. A beloved father and friend decided to end his life. Our hearts and prayers go out to their families as we feel their loss and heartache.
So at this time, when we feel helpless and sad, we turn to the wisdom of children.
The following article about Children and Grief appeared in Caring Magazine, a publication for the National Association for Homecare and Hospice. It contains ten tips to help children cope with grief. We hope these words of advice help support our friends and families during this time of grief.
Children’s Teachings on Grief
By Rory Kidder
On a warm, sunny day in the summer of 2012, the Professor Child team traveled to Camp Sunrise, a bereavement camp run by Hospice of Redmond, Oregon. Camp Sunrise is founded on the understanding that every child deserves the opportunity to grieve in a safe, supportive, and understanding environment. The Professor Child Team was honored to attend “family day” at camp and to be given the opportunity to share their vision of creating a film in which children teach children about grief by sharing their personal stories.
Many of the families attending camp that day were extremely receptive to the idea of children teaching children about grief. There was an overwhelming sentiment that this film would be an amazing resource to help children and adults with the healing process. The Professor Child team left Camp Sunrise that day with not only support for their project, but ten eager film participants.
“Children and Grief” was filmed later in the summer of 2012, and like all Professor Child’s educational, documentary-style films, it highlights the stories of children in a profound and approachable way. Children share their experience with grief, what has helped, what they’ve learned, and advice for other children.
“The wisdom captured in this video is profound. Kids speaking honestly and openly to other kids about their experiences with death can empower other kids and offer hope. The depth of pain and courage is readily understood by kids and adults alike.” – Amy Foster-Wexler, LCSW, of Hospice of Redmond, Oregon.
The film participants have experienced a life-changing event many of us cannot even fathom; yet they manage to share their stories with a sense of strength and resiliency. “As you watch the film, their personal stories will take you on a journey leaving you with a sense of hope and an understanding that you are not alone in experiencing death,” shares Sharon Richards, Professor Child co-founder.
The topic of grief is especially relevant to the founders of Professor Child. After a discouraging search to find a hopeful and healing product for a child experiencing grief, Jenni O’Keefe, co-founder of Professor Child, was inspired to create a new type of educational tool. “I was dismayed at the lack of resources available for children dealing with grief. I knew there had to be a way to instill a sense of hope and healing to children going through a difficult time. I knew there was an opportunity to create something special,” said O’Keefe. After partnering with co-founders Sharon Richards, a mental health counselor, and Rory Kidder, an elementary school teacher, Professor Child was launched with a focus on children teaching children by sharing their own personal stories.
“Our goal was to have children teach children about grief, but what we’ve learned from parents, counselors and hospices who have purchased the film, is that children can teach children and adults,” said O’Keefe.
In “Children and Grief”, there are ten chapters with each chapter focusing on a different component of a child’s story. Although each child’s story is unique, there is a common thread that runs through each child’s experience. Those common threads were woven together to create the following ten tips on how to help children with grief. These are the teachings from children.
- Encourage children to share their grief story.
In Children and Grief, all of the children interviewed emphasized the importance of talking about their experience. “If kids don’t talk to anybody, I feel like they’ll be just left alone and keep on being sad,” shared Aurora, 9. Don’t be scared to ask kids difficult questions, they truly want to be heard.
- What does grief mean to you?
“Grief means every emotion, I think,” shared Alexander, 14. Encourage children to create their own definition of grief. What does it mean to them? Help them understand there are many ways to experience grief, there is no wrong or right way, and all of their feelings are valid.
- If kids are not talking about their grief, don’t assume everything is okay.
When a death of a loved one occurs, adults are often faced with grief and dealing with new worries and challenges. Children also have worries and challenges, but may not be sharing them out of concern for the adults. Encourage children to share their worries and challenges with you and let them know they are not alone in what they are feeling and experiencing. Check in regularly with kids by asking open-ended questions about how they are dealing with their loss.
- Little Things Help.
Children find comfort in small gestures that adults may overlook. Some things that may help children include going to the park, spending time with pets, being with family, looking at pictures of the loved one who has passed, talking to their stuffed animals, getting a pat on the back and simply being told that everything is going to be okay.
- Condolence is a balancing act.
In Children and Grief, all of the children interviewed expressed the importance of having others acknowledge the passing of their loved one. Although they want you to offer condolence, understand that they may not feel like talking about it at that time. But don’t give up! Keep asking how they are doing. Kids like to have people regularly check in on them.
- Ask children what they believe happens after a person dies.
What do children believe happens when someone dies? Have them draw a picture of where they think their loved one is now. What is he/she doing? Support their beliefs by letting them know there are many beliefs about life after death.
- Continue to celebrate and remember the loved one who has died.
To help children work through grief, create a ritual/tradition to celebrate and remember a loved one. Have children come up with a way to celebrate the birthday of their loved one. Create a picture collage or any artwork to remind them of their loved one. Kids also like to decorate objects with things that remind them of the person who has passed. Let kids be creative by coming up with their own unique ways to celebrate their loved one.
- A shift in perspective can help the healing process.
Julia, 9, has learned it is a gift to have her family members who are still alive. Sequoia, 11, has learned she can get through anything after what she has gone through. Alexander, 14, has learned the more he is sad, the stronger he is going to be for others when they lose a loved one. What has your child learned from experiencing grief?
- Help children stay focused on their dreams for the future.
Ask children, “What are your hopes and dreams?” Having children focus on their hopes and dreams lets them know their life is much more than the grief they are experiencing. This positively affects self-esteem while instilling confidence and creating a purpose in life.
- I AM: Ask children to define who they are.
Have children answer the following questions. What are some of your strengths? What do you love? What brings you joy? What are some words that describe who you are? Have them define themselves using “I Am” statements. Post somewhere visible so they are often reminded of who they are.