A mother once said to me, “(My child) only lost her father, I lost my husband!” This is understandable because we think children cannot grieve to the same depth we do as adults.
Grieving children look different from grieving adults. They tend to go in and out of sadness. But children need the assistance of adults when they’ve had a loss for a number of reasons. Children do not have the experience to know that they will be okay. They have not had the chance to develop skills for coping with painful feelings and emotions. It is the job of caring adults to offer unconditional love and acceptance, to bear witness, to be with a child in pain without trying to fix or take away the pain.
When I was 14 my father died of cancer. My dad was handsome, funny, caring and kind. My first thought and fear was wondering how we were going pay the bills! And I decided it was my job to make sure my mom didn’t feel lonely or sad. Quite a burden to place on myself! But this is typical of children who have had a parent die. Children are naturally ego-centric – we worry about who is going to take care of us and will our lives stay the same. We hope we won’t have to move and that we will still get new school clothes or go on vacation.
And while some children rebel, others become extra-responsible, taking on household chores and trying to do the impossible – to protect our remaining parent from any feelings of sadness or loneliness.
On average, one of three children in every classroom is grieving a loss of some kind. In urban areas that number is even higher. Children in grief are at risk for poor school performance, depression, addiction or simply not living life fully and joyfully. But not if they get support. This can come from a caring, supportive community, parents and other adults who take the time to listen and help children express their feelings, or peer support groups.
Parents, teachers and adults often ask, “What should I say?” or “What should I do?” when a child they know has experienced a painful loss. We say: Give them your love. Give them your time. Give them your attention. Give them your faith that they will get through this. These are the messages grieving children need from adults.
Imagine, a new non-profit based in Westfield, provides free year-round peer support programs for parents and their children 3-18 and for young adults 18-30. The programs are designed to prevent some of the negative outcomes associated with unaddressed grief and as an effective intervention for drug and alcohol abuse.
The peer support model has been well-studied and has consistently been found to facilitate supportive interpersonal relationships, to reduce isolation and to foster increased resiliency including problem solving, improved communication, the ability to ask for help and the development of an internal locus of control. Imagine is committed to the development of grieving children’s resiliency and well-being.