Helping Children Cope With Loss
How we grieve and process the loss of a loved one looks different from one person to the next. But, as adults, we have developed the cognitive ability to understand death and all the complicated emotions and actions that come along with it. Some grieve internally, seek professional support, or lean on friends and family. The list goes on, and no two experiences are the same.
For children, this is very different. When a child loses a loved one, how does he or she process it? What does that mean to a developing child? We invited Child Life Mommy, Shani Thornton, to share her expertise on this. As a Certified Child Life Specialist and mom of 2 boys (you can read more about Shani below), she has supported children and families through their grieving process. Read along as she shares a personal experience of helping her son cope with grief. Beads of Courage is proud to collaborate with our partners in caring worldwide to support kids, teens and families coping with serious illness and the clinicians who care for them. Thank you Shani for sharing your words with us and the community!
I Wish That Mommy Never Dies
While visiting family during Christmas break, we decided to grab a bite to eat. There was a fountain that would be a great distraction for my 4-and-a-half-year-old, while we waited to be seated. As I handed my son pennies to toss into the water, I had no idea that he would have such a powerful wish.
His words took my breath away as I just stood there with a handful of copper pennies that were meant for garbage trucks, police cars, and Legos.
Our family had experienced four deaths in just a short ten months, and my son was realizing the permanence of these deaths.
As a child life specialist who works to support children’s grief, I was witnessing my own son’s emotional torture of understanding death, coping with his fear of loss, and trying to understand why his French Bulldog couldn’t come back from heaven.
When we returned home from vacation, his grief began to manifest and triggered some separation anxiety. His transition back to school was challenging, bedtime was a struggle, and I noticed he constantly followed me around the house.
One night before bed, he asked me if I was going to die. Part of me wanted to say, “No, never. Don’t think like that.” However, I took the alternative route of responding with empathy.
“You are so worried that something will happen to me. You love me so much and don’t want me to leave.”
He knew I understood his fears and was permitting him to express them.
Our conversation continued with lots of reassurance on how I take good care of my body and will hopefully live to be 100. We ended our talk with lots of giggles, cuddles, and reminders that we are always connected no matter where we are.
After I put him to bed, I had a plan in my head to help him work through his grief and cope with the separation issues. So this is what I did:
Lots of validation
I named and validated his feelings as soon as he began to get slightly upset about going to school. “You don’t want to leave Mommy. You miss me so much when you are at school. I miss you too.”
Normalize his emotions
I try to follow up the validation by normalizing his thoughts and feelings. “Returning to school after such a long break is so hard. Lots of kids feel the same way.”
I make sure to spend some extra time with him each day. We sit and eat lunch together; I hold his hand and carry him around while I smother him with kisses.
I get on the floor and play with him using a child-centered approach. He leads, chooses the activity, and has as much control as possible. I narrate what he is doing, name his feelings, and stay present in the moment. It is an excellent way for us to both feel reconnected.
I don’t want his teachers to become frustrated with him as he struggles to separate from me at school. So, I am honest about the losses and let them know that we are helping him work through it.
I provide him with various activities that promote self-expression, coping strategies, and memory-making around the losses.
The other day, he was getting worked up about going to school, so I introduced him to an activity about staying connected.
First, I read him the beautifully written and illustrated children’s book, The Invisible String, by Patrice Karst. It instantly resonated with him. Then, using construction paper, markers, and lanyards, I helped him create his invisible string.
He had many choices during the activity of what color paper, markers, freedom to draw whatever he liked, and the length of the string (which ended up being 8 feet). He then practiced pulling on the string, as I acted out the tug from my heart. His face lit up with a smile, and I knew he was beginning to feel safer.
Grief is complicated, but allowing kids to feel and express unpleasant emotions through empathy, play, and patience will develop healthy coping strategies and resilience.
View Child Life Mommy’s caregiver guide to helping support your child according to their age and developmental stage.