Childhood grief is a topic that we do not hear much about. We do not hear it on the news, we do not talk about it in family gatherings, and we certainly do not talk about it in school or even religious spaces; however, we should. When I first shared the statistics shown in the graphic with colleagues and friends outside of the “grief therapist world,” they were shocked. They had no idea that the stats were so high, and they were astonished they had never heard them before. Let’s take a look at some of them.
I find the first and third statistics the most stunning: one out of five children will experience the loss of a loved one before they reach high school and one out of fifteen children will lose a parent before they reach the age of eighteen. When looking at these two facts, I think about how unprepared we are as parents, family members, teachers, and even mental health professionals to help these children when they need us the most.
The second statistic is just as shocking: eighty-seven percent of teachers have noticed that their grieving students have had difficulty concentrating after the loss. These children are missing formative and life-changing information during their school day because they are not able to focus due to their extensive outside worries. What do they worry about? They worry that someone else they love is going to die. They worry about whether they will die. They worry that it was their fault their loved one died. If the breadwinner of their family was the one who died, they worry about where the rent check or their next meal is coming from. If they have younger siblings, they worry that they have to be more of a parent than a sibling. These are just the tip of the iceberg. Would you be able to concentrate with all of these things going on?
So, how do we help them? Our first job is to listen. Children need to be seen, heard, and understood, just like the rest of us. Listen to their worries, their fears, their big sad feelings. Let them know that you care about them and all of their thoughts. If they need some additional assistance, or you need additional care, seek the help of a therapist or support group. Research shows that kids feel safest talking about their grief when they are in a place where they know they are not being judged and where people are going to understand where they are coming from. When I was a child, after my dad died, I personally felt safest when I was at my peer grief support group. It was one of the only places, if not the only place, I would actually talk about my dad. I knew that the people listening truly cared about what I was saying and understood what I was talking about. Similar to my experience, the other kids in the group were also having trouble in school, with friends, or talking to their parents.
I encourage families, friends, and loved ones to talk about the child’s person who died. They were a significant part of the child’s life and he or she will want to talk about that person. They do not want them to simply disappear. Some things you can do are set aside a place in your home for your loved one or set aside some time during special holidays, or even during the regular week, so that your child knows that they can talk about their grief while having your undivided attention.
If you need further help with your own grief or help navigating a child’s grief, I am always available to help you along your journey. You can contact our office for an appointment or schedule a speaking event for your organization, school, or workplace to talk about how to help others along their grief journey.