November is Child Grief Awareness Month. It is also a month that we celebrate being thankful. As a newly grieving person, feeling thankful and blessed can be hard. Understanding how you feel at all is difficult. I had a tray in the kitchen that I got rid of shortly after Kade died. It said “thankful, grateful, and blessed”. I couldn’t stand to look at it. I felt anything but those three words. I felt everything and nothing all at the same time. I am still new at this and learning everyday, but I have learned that I am thankful, grateful, and blessed in many ways, and in some ways the pain I experienced and am experiencing has given me the ability to see these things more deeply and truly. Grief is hard work. It is confusing, emotional, isolating, confusing (did I say that already), and painful (so very, very painful). As an adult, I can find the words to share my feelings, most of the time. For children, many may not even have the vocabulary necessary to express what they are feeling and experiencing. Grief in children looks very different.
Tonight, my youngest son who is almost 3 years old, looked at a picture of his older brothers, Kellen and Kade, and said “those are my brothers”. “Kade climbed on that stupid fence and went all the way up to the sky.” I had to stop for a moment and make sure I heard what I thought I did. What a profound and utterly honest statement from such a young person. I often worry that Luke will not remember Kade. They were so very close to one another. Nineteen months apart in age, and kindred spirits in play and brotherhood. Luke adored Kade, and Kade adored his baby brother.
Recently, we had to put our dog Ellie to sleep. She had liver cancer and had fought a hard battle. It was time. My boys once again had to say goodbye to someone important to them. Luke has asked about his Ellie Stellie several times in the last several days. Tonight at bedtime, he almost had a meltdown asking for her. In the last two years, they have lost their brother, Grandmother to Ovarian Cancer, and now their dog. Any one of these losses would be traumatic by itself. My youngest son, Luke, has had the easiest time. He is young enough that he has the gift of remembering less of the pain and more of the good. My oldest - he is struggling. So much has changed. It is confusing. Who do you talk to? Who will understand? What really matters to me now? My parents are different. My brother is gone. Who am I now? Those are big questions and issues for a child to face.
Often, the youngest grievers are forgotten in the process. They play and act “normal”. Most people may not even realize how much they are hurting. Did you know that 100% of children who have lost a parent or sibling are grieving? It’s true. So many people will tell you that when they returned to school after the death of a loved one, NO ONE ASKED ABOUT THEIR PERSON! Take a moment and think about how isolating that is? You have just experienced the most painful event of your life and no one mentions it. What does the child take away from this? They don’t care. They don’t understand. It doesn’t matter to them. Those may be far from true statements, but did I mention grief is confusing? It may be uncomfortable for you, but children (just like adults) need to talk about their feelings and emotions. They also need this support for years to come after the death of their loved one. Check in with them on birthdays (theirs and their loved ones), holidays, death anniversaries, graduations, prom, and weddings just to say do you need to talk?
Young children may not have the words to express grief and emotions. They will, however, play out what they are thinking and feeling. Kids will share what they need to through pretend play, art, music, and other activities. Words may be hard to find, but allow other outlets for them to “speak”. My son has found art and writing stories helpful. He also has a strong need to play and play hard (running, football, biking).
Over the last year and a half, I have seen my oldest change so much. It is inevitable, but even with support and counseling, he struggles. Friendships, schoolwork, family, confidence, identity, sports. Nothing in life is left unchanged or untouched by grief.
One in five children will experience the death of a parent or sibling by the age of 18! That is a large portion of the population. That is a large group of students in schools, on sports teams, scouting groups, etc. It is important to reach out, to check in, to support, to meet them in their confusion and discomfort.
The Playful Child Foundation was established with the mission of healthier kids mentally and physically. At first, I knew I wanted to focus on building the memorial park and playground. Play was important to Kade! He loved to play! I have, however, realized that the park is so much more. Play heals. Play brings people together. It builds friendships, community, good health, and mental wellness. All of these things are important to all people, but especially to grieving people and children.
This Fall, I talked with Amy Rodriguez and Heather Moeller at Georgetown ISD about children and grief support. I saw a need with my own children to provide better support to grieving children in our community. I am happy to see that the message has been heard and GISD and the Christi Center are working together to provide children and families in Georgetown with additional support and resources! If you have children who would benefit from additional grief support, please reach out to your school counselor for additional details.
Every child is different, but here are some things that I have found helpful with my children. Sign your child up for a PAL at school. My son’s PAL is amazing and is one of the only reasons he enjoys school right now. Counseling. Art classes. Sports. Music. Church. Grief groups for kids. Make time to spend with each child individually. Take a walk, toss the ball, get your nails done (not my boys J). Let them know you love them and are available to talk when they need too. We shared Kade memories, at first every night and as time passes, as needed. At first, I was surprised to hear my oldest share about times he had not been as nice to Kade. But these were important to him, special moments he will never have again. For example, at Halloween sharing that he wanted to scare Kade again with all the spiders. Kade hated the spiders and was terrified. Kellen delighted in making his brother scream. Boys! These silly moments can turn into sharing the deeper hurt. For example, my oldest has shared several times that he wishes he had not gone to play with a friend the afternoon Kade died. Then he would have been home to protect Kade. That hurt took a long time to be shared. It took awhile for him to let out that burden, and what a big one it is for a little heart to carry. While his brother’s death is not in any way his fault, he feels responsible. So many children do.
Grieving parents need the support of the community. We are hurting. We are exhausted. Our nerves and patience are frayed. We are dealing with all the regular parenting duties plus the life altering pain of grief. For me, it is the little things that make me come undone. I can say it is probably the same for children. My pencil lead broke. The response may not be to get calmly up and sharpen the pencil, but instead to have a total meltdown! It’s not about the pencil at all, but about what you are holding in and trying desperately to deal with. So many parents talk about how their grieving children come home from school and lose it! Why? They have held it all together for 8 hours plus and now need to let it out. Children are often feeling that at school no one gets it or me. Home is my safe place. I can now cry, scream, talk, giggle, and just let it all hang out. Problem with this is, by this time in the day most parents are beat. It can make for some tense situations. This is also the time families are trying to fit in dinner, after school activities, homework, and bedtime. WOW! Let me tell you, it is hard work.
How can you help? At school, check in with your students. If you know a student has lost a loved one or even a pet, ask about that person and really listen. Provide the student with a place to go if they feel overwhelmed and need to take a breath or two. Sounds simple, but it is not happening for so many children. Outside of school, do the same thing. Give a hug. Send a thinking of you card.
These are my thoughts on child grief as a mother of two grieving boys. Grief is as unique as a snowflake. There are no steps to fix it. Those classic stages of grief may be experienced all in a matter of 5 minutes some days. As children grow and mature, they will revisit and experience grief again in different ways. So, don’t assume that because the loss happened months, a year, or years ago the child is ok. They still need your support, love, and care.
Help create a world with healthier and happier children by supporting the littlest grieving and hurting hearts. It is not easy and will be uncomfortable at first, but your effort will make a tremendous difference in the life of a child!
Check out these resources for more information on supporting grieving children:
New York Life Foundation (great resource for schools and educators)
Footprints Round Rock, TX (child grief group)
Camp Agape Marble Falls, TX (summer camp and Fall family retreat)
Christi Center Austin, TX
National Alliance for Grieving Children
Children’s Grief Awareness Day
Here for You (Care Packages & Cards)
A Memory Grows
Hope Family Care Ministries (send care packages to families after a death)
There are many others we have found and if you are interested or in need of support, I would be happy to share places and resources we have found helpful.