Lesson Learned: Give Grieving Children Their Voice

Over the many years of my work with young families, I have learned so much about the way they navigate tragedies. I remember one family with two children in grade school that was suddenly and unexpectedly motherless. They stand out in my mind because of the patterns that I saw then and so many times later with other grieving families.


grieving son hugged by his father

Children grieve differently than adults and often need help understanding and expressing their feelings during such a confusing time.

Who can be well-prepared to tell children that a parent or sibling has died? Imagine the pain and frustration in that conversation. I learned much about regret when families would recall their delivery of this horrible news for years. Most family members say that they informed the children as best they could, but that they did it badly. Young families have so little experience with death and dying and we don’t really talk about it openly – especially to children. The words never come easily.


Grief and the desire to feel ‘normal’


I also have learned that over time, children try so hard to get back to ‘normal’ but with little help from the adults in their lives. Often, families go underground with their feelings and emotions. Even worse, some families stop talking about their loved one’s death completely. The holidays, graduations and other life events move forward, but if families don’t periodically return to the time of loss they may be missing a chance to truly heal. Some children grow up shrouded in years of quiet and regret. As time passes, it can appear as if the family simply forgot about the death. I’ve learned that children do not forget.


The adults who remain in the family need to work hard at making things right for their children. If they don’t, they will spend a lifetime blaming themselves for the unhappy parts of their children’s lives and harboring regret about things they could have said or done.


Families that find their way to grief support counseling are responding to an instinct that without this help, their children are in some sort of harm’s way – not just because of a loss, but even more if the grief journey is not adequately navigated.


Helping bereaved children and their families


Grieving children make memory boxes with Care Dimensions child life specialist

Care Dimensions certified child life specialists often use group activities to help children cope with their grief.

Now, working with the Care Dimensions program for bereaved kids and their families, I have a chance to witness the gifted child life therapists and bereavement counselors as they help families navigate and sort things out. The counselors and therapists help the families find their way to a new normal.


If someone you love has died, I hope that a program like ours instructs and informs the choices you are making for the children who remain in your life. Whatever it is you are living through, you do not have to do it alone. You don’t have to avoid and pretend. You don’t have to regret the way you navigate your experience. You have a chance to give a child their voice and you may find your own along the way.


If someone in your life is seriously ill, consider tapping into the child life resources in your community – at hospices like Care Dimensions and in schools and hospitals – to support children as they prepare for the death of a loved one.


My wish for you is that you and the people you love have the best days possible, even during and after a hard time. As we say in our bereavement program, “Every grieving child’s darkest night can end in a good mourning.”


March is Child Life Month, which celebrates certified child life specialists, who help children and families cope with the stress and uncertainty of acute and chronic illness, injury, trauma, disability, loss and bereavement. Learn about our many child grief support resources, many of which are free and available to members of our community, regardless of whether your loved one was on our hospice program.

Patricia Ahern, RN, MBA, FACHE, is President and CEO of Care Dimensions. She has more than 30 years of leadership experience in health care, including acute care hospitals and hospice and palliative care organizations.

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"Since 1978, Care Dimensions has provided comprehensive and compassionate care for individuals and families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. As the non-profit leader in advanced illness care, we offer services in more than 90 communities in Eastern Massachusetts."