How to help kids cope loss
A grandparent is sick and in hospice.
A parent or sibling has terminal cancer.
A close friend or relative is undergoing treatment for a chronic disease.
Children are not protected from loss and grief any more than adults are, yet they often have fewer emotional resources or coping mechanisms for handling the situation. Many times as adults we try to handle our own discomfort by avoiding the situation or protecting the children from the facts. Neither approach is helpful for the child. Instead, it is important that we provide an opportunity for the child to share how they are feeling, without worrying that they need to take care of us or protect us from loss or the extent of their feelings. This is especially important for older children who may be accustomed to taking care of others’ feeling before their own.
In addition, the coping strategies that we teach during this critical time will not only serve the child during their current time of grief and loss but throughout their life as they face similar situations. Loss and grief are always difficult emotions for everyone, adults and children alike. As school counselors, we are in an especially challenging position since we are expected to be a resource to others while we may be equally affected and emotional about the situation. What are some best practices? Here are some suggestions:
- Begin by simply giving the child an opportunity to share their situation. What is going on? What do they understand about the situation in terms of past, present and future expectations. How do they feel about it? What are they doing about it? How are they coping? This is simply an information gathering process. Your approach should be curious and compassionate.
- You might explore if there are feelings of guilt or anger over the past. Acknowledge that while we may know a lot of details about what happened and how it happened, there are a lot of things that we will never know or understand and speculating about them or wishing that things were done differently, doesn’t help make the situation better for anybody. You might mention that often bad things happen to good people and while we can’t go back in time and change what happened, what we can do is focus on the present and bringing our best selves to every day.
- Talking about the grief process and what they can expect to feel over time; sadness, anger maybe even fear or anxiety. can be helpful. Normalize those feelings and suggest that they find someone they can trust to talk to when they have those feelings. Ask students to give examples of who they can talk to and offer your services as well.
- Point out that sometimes when we face sad or challenging situations it reminds each of us of other losses in our own lives and causes us to grieve again for those losses. Ask if they have found themselves thinking about other sad situations in their own lives and felt themselves grieving over them again. Allow some time to talk about those related situations.
- Point out that sometimes kids feel that because something bad happens to someone else, it must mean that something bad will happen to them. However, events are not connected in that way. Reassure them in whatever way is appropriate to the situation that they can feel safe.
- Finally, address the fact that often when something bad happens, we feel guilty that we didn’t in some way see it coming or prevent it from happening. Sometimes we even feel responsible or that it is our fault, but that again, the best thing that we can do is to give ourselves credit for doing the best we can in each and every situation we are in. Remind them that rather than regretting something they didn’t do in the past, the best we can do now is to be sure to care for and support each other in the present. Have students give examples of what they need and would appreciate receiving from others in their current situation.
Need more ideas? Here is a website with lots of grief resources.
My all time favorite book to use with individual students who are grieving is, Marc Brown’s When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death. It outlines and explains everything from what to expect at a funeral to the many emotions a child might experience.
Another excellent book is, Grandad Bill’s Song, by Jane Yolen. It is a lovely sensitive book about each family member’s memories of Grandad Bill after his death.