“Anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve.”
– Dr. Alan Wolfelt, renowned grief educator
Death is often considered a “taboo” topic in our society today. People don’t like to talk about it. Especially with children. Adults will often strive to protect children from anything upsetting or potentially painful. But the fact remains that most children will be impacted by loss at some point during their childhood. This could be the loss of a pet, moving to a new town, parental divorce, or the death of someone close to them. Loss is a part of life for us all, and children are not exempt.
As a certified child life specialist at Care Dimensions, I talk with kids about death almost every day. I provide support to children and families who are grieving the loss of someone close or have a loved one who is seriously ill.
Dealing with loss can be an especially confusing time for children and they may have questions, worries, or misconceptions. Having open, honest, and age-appropriate conversations with children during times of illness or loss can help alleviate their fears and allow them to feel comfortable approaching adults with their concerns.
As children grow and develop, their understanding of death changes. A young child may believe that death is temporary and that their loved one will return. You may hear them ask when the person will be coming home even after repeatedly being told that their loved one has died. It is also common for young children to believe that the death was somehow their fault, and they need to be reassured that this is not the case. As children grow older, they begin to understand the permanence of death and also the universality of death. Everyone dies. This can result in new worries and fears. “Will my mom die, too?” “What would happen to me if she died?” “Will I die?”
My job is to partner with families to support children when a loved one is seriously ill or after a death has occurred. The families I work with often have questions such as:
- “How do I explain to my child that our loved one is going to die?”
- “Should I bring my child to visit our sick family member in the hospital?”
- “Should my child attend the funeral?”
There are no universal answers to these questions. I work with parents and caregivers to help them determine what information they are comfortable sharing with their children, what language to use to explain illness and death to their children, and how to answer the difficult questions that children often pose. I provide support before, during, and after these difficult conversations that parents and caregivers must have with their children.
I also work directly with children, preparing them prior to a loss and supporting them afterwards. Through the use of books, games, and expressive art activities, my goal is to create a safe space in which children feel comfortable sharing their feelings, thoughts, and fears. Often, children’s worries and fears will emerge through their play in ways that they are not yet able to communicate verbally. Play is a powerful tool through which children can begin to process their feelings, and also learn and practice skills that will help them cope with their grief.
The idea that children are too young to grieve is a common misconception in our society. Children grieve differently than adults, however, and require their own unique support to help them understand and process their feelings and emotions. That’s where child life specialists come in: supporting children who have loved and lost.
In addition to individual support, Care Dimensions offers opportunities for children to explore and process their grief with peers through our Children’s Support Groups and at Camp Stepping Stones. These types of peer support allow children to connect with others who have lost a loved one and share experiences, express their feelings, and build community.
For more information about any of our children’s programs, please contact Danielle Buzanga at 781-373-6570 or ChildLife@caredimensions.org.