“Lessons from Children on Coping with Grief” was originally published in the winter 2014 issue of American School Counselor Association Magazine. The article explores what we can learn from grieving children.
How do children cope with crisis and what can we learn from them? In Professor Child’s film, Children and Grief, ten children bravely share their stories of coping with the crisis of losing a loved one. I had the distinct honor of interviewing these children for the film. As you would imagine, all of the children were coping with loss in their own way. Some children appeared extremely resilient and even happy at times, while others were quiet, struggling to stay awake, and clinging to adults. Their stories of loss are unique to each child. Some of the children have lost parents to disease and suicide, while others have lost siblings, relatives and grandparents due to tragic accidents or old age. How they cope with their loss is unique to each child, yet there is a common thread that links their stories together and reminds me of the wisdom children possess.
Grief can stretch its arms wide and reach into every part of our lives. It has the potential to loom over us and grow exponentially. What I am reminded by these children though, is how they view grief and cope with it can be very different than an adult. Their grief can be seen in the little things that occur in our everyday lives.
“I miss my mom making pancakes in the morning,” Dominic, 10.
“What I miss about my dad is wrestling with him,” Amba, 7.
“I miss most about my uncle… that he used to play his guitar until we fell asleep,” Aurora, 8.
“What I miss most about him is, (my dad) well just kind of having him around and stuff… like, when he got home from work and when he got up in the morning, and now he’s not there. It was just nice to have him take us to school and stuff,” Julia, 9.
“What I miss most about him is just being him, jolly and awesome,” Julesa, 9.
As a counselor, and more importantly as a mother, I was struck by the simplicity of their words and the depth of their knowledge. The lesson that “little things matter” has been firmly imprinted on my consciousness by these children. This message came up over and over throughout the film, especially when I asked the question, “What has helped you with your grief?”
Adeline, 5, shares, “I really like to go to the park and play on sunny days.”
Aurora, 9, finds comfort talking to her sister and parents about her loss, and, “Sometimes it just helps to be left alone. I just talk to myself and sometimes take a nap.”
“Something I did to help was I like my puppy. (He) really made me feel good and so I would pet him and stuff and I would feel better. I just liked being with him and stuff. I would talk to my puppy about how I felt and stuff and I also liked just how fuzzy his fur was because it was really fluffy,” shares Julia, 9.
Sequoia, 10, said, “Things that helped me through the whole time was friends, family and some of my stuffed animals.” Sequoia goes on to say, “I just talked to them (my stuffed animals). You could actually think they are friends in real life. I think they’re family and they are. Like my favorite stuffed animal is Lilly, she is a Dalmatian with hearts. When I needed something, I asked her and she just helped me through it.”
Once again, little things matter. Small gestures that we may overlook. A pat on the back, consistently checking in on how a child is doing even if they don’t feel like talking, a walk on a sunny day, a hand written card… all of these things matter to these children and they all say it is these little things that help them cope.
When the death of a loved one occurs, adults are often faced with new worries and challenges. In Children and Grief, I was reminded that children also have worries and challenges, but may not be sharing them out of concern for the adults in their lives. To 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, I recommend an empowering role play exercise. This activity allows children to share their worries and challenges while empowering them to find their own solutions. In the exercise, I ask children to write down some worries and challenges they have had. They partner up with a buddy and give that person their list of worries/challenges. Their buddy pretends to be them, while the child becomes the expert giving advice. As the buddy reads their worries and challenges to the child, the child has the job of giving their partner advice to help him/her feel better.
Another exercise I use to help children cope with grief, is to make a Worry Free Bead Necklace. Children roll sculpting clay into small balls and use toothpicks to poke holes through the center of the ball to make a bead. While they do this, they say what worry each bead represents. We bake the beads on a cookie sheet according to the directions on the clay package. While the beads are baking, I have the children envision the heat cooking their worries away and turning them into Worry Free Beads for a necklace. We then string the beads after they have cooled. Children love this visual exercise!
As we all know, coping with grief is a process. Alexander, 14, understands this as he shares this advice to children coping with grief, “Advice I would give is not to keep it in, you need to talk to someone cause it will just keep building and you get frustrated if you keep holding it in; you get angry. You’re supposed to let stuff flow, you’re not supposed to hold it in and build that all up.” I love that a 14 year old understands the importance of letting emotions flow in order to begin the healing process. I learned so much about grief from Alexander and all the children featured in Children and Grief. I am forever changed by their stories. I will never forget that little things matter in life, and death, and how far reaching small gestures of kindness can be toward helping others on their healing journey.
“What I’ve learned is that if you lose a family member, especially if it’s a brother or a dad or a mom or a sister, then you can feel like it’s more of a gift to have the other family members you have. It’s very nice to have them. You think more of that. And then you feel more like it’s a really big privilege to have them, cause before I didn’t really feel like that. I felt like they were just there… but now I know that they are really big.” ~ Julia, 9