A loss in the family can be a devastating experience. Children, especially, may need extra support to help them through the grieving process.
“Children have a primary need to express their grief,” says Caryn Kondo, the clinical director at New Song Center for Grieving Children—a free, ongoing grief support-group program provided by Hospice of the Valley for children and families.
The grieving process in children is very different from that of adults and can also vary depending on the age of the child, says Kondo. “Children grieve developmentally, and they re-grieve as they age. If a 5-year-old’s father dies, the child will re-grieve that death as a teen.”
The younger the child, the more the expression of grief tends to be behavioral, she adds. “It’s important to allow the expression of grief to happen through play and physicality.”
When to seek outside help
Parents know their children best and will often be the first to recognize when a child is struggling with the grieving process. “Grief affects us physically, emotionally and cognitively,” Kondo says, and can manifest itself in many ways. The “grief fog” can affect everything from schoolwork to physical health.
She encourages parents to stay vigilant because there is a “circle of protection” that often arises: parents try to protect children by concealing their own emotional pain and kids try to protect their parents by doing the same.
It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and check in on children regularly by saying things like, “I was thinking about Dad today. What were you thinking about?”
Include children in the grieving process
Children should be included in every aspect of the grieving process. Start by explaining the simple truth about what happened. When children are kept in the dark, their imaginations run wild and they develop fears.
Children should also be included in all memorials and rituals. Let them help with planning and encourage them to express themselves in ways they feel comfortable: They may want to recall a memory, draw a picture, play a song, write a poem or make a collage.
Support groups make a difference
In 20 years of working for New Song Center for Grieving Children, Kondo has seen the difference support groups can make: “If you see a family on the first night, they seem empty. They are sad. After 14 to 16 months, they are re-engaged in life and giving back to others. You can see the difference. There’s a a new cadence in who they are.”
Volunteers are the cornerstone of programs like New Song Center for Grieving Children. Facilitators, who are often former participants in the program, find making a difference in other people’s lives is a healthy step in their own grieving process.
To learn more about volunteering, call volunteer coordinator Gary Anderson at 602-776-6803 or visit hov.org.
- Billy’s Place. Grief support group for children ages 3-18 and their immediate family members.
- Camp Erin. Support groups, one-on-one support, camps and crisis intervention.
- Dottie Kissinger Bereavement Camp. Bereavement camps for children and parents through Banner Hospice Program.
- “Luz del Corazon”. Confidential family support group–offered by New Song Center for Grieving Children—for families whose primary language is Spanish.
- New Song Center for Grieving Children. Age-specific grief support groups for children and their parents or guardians at locations in Phoenix, Avondale and Scottsdale.
- Stepping Stones of Hope. Camps, programs and services help grieving children, parents and caregivers.