Helping Children Cope with Loss
By Leah Davies, M.Ed.
The death of a parent, family member, friend or even a pet can be devastating to a child. Parental separation, divorce, relocation, illness or accident may be traumatic as well.
Yet, there are actions school counselors and teachers can take to help children cope with loss. When working with hurting children, remember, they do not "get over" a significant loss, instead they learn how to live with it
How can you help?
Acknowledge a child's grief through kind words, gentle actions, and unconditional support. Whenever possible, coordinate with the family so that the child receives consistent messages. Help the parent see that protecting the child from the truth can have negative consequences like increasing confusion, fear and resentment. Together, help the child face reality by using simple, straightforward language like "He died," not "He has gone to sleep," or "She's gone away."
Show understanding by being compassionate and offering your calm, silent presence. If the child shares an emotion, reflect and validate it by restating the feeling. For example, say, "That was very sad." Saying, "I know how you feel," is not helpful because one can never truly know the pain of another. Use books and workbooks which deal with loss in helpful ways.
Reassure the child that feelings of shock, sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, fear and guilt are normal reactions to grief. Expect some new behaviors and provide a safe emotional outlet for negative feelings. These may include tearing up old magazines, punching a pillow, scribbling on paper, pounding clay or blocks, writing down feelings, yelling, or crying. Let the child know that it is natural to feel angry, but it is not okay to hurt others.
Provide opportunities for the child to participate in activities designed to help in the healing process. These may include: writing, reading, telling stories, creating crafts, planting plants, making a memory book or treasure box, paying tribute, participating in rituals.
Accept that each child's experience with loss is unique; the reaction can be intense as well as sporadic. A grieving child often needs to take a break and engage in play activities since emotions concerning loss are so powerful. As a child passes through life's developmental stages, these feelings often resurface. Attempts to hurry the healing process can be detrimental.
Provide a support group for bereaved children who are facing similar circumstances. The group can provide acceptance, companionship, and an environment where emotions and concerns can be freely expressed. If prolonged periods of change in a child's temperament, eating, sleeping, and/or interests occur, additional professional attention may be required.