Good Grief: Helping Children and Teens Deal with Loss

Mother comforting her upset teenage girlAs a professional who has worked in one capacity or another with children and teens for nearly twenty years, the topic of grief and loss has been consistently present in all my interactions with young people. Long before I decided to return to graduate school for social work, I found myself encountering youth from all walks of life struggling to cope with issues of loss, from the grief attached to a parent’s divorce to the grief associated with the death of a pet, friend, teacher, or parent. I found the topic in the hushed tones of colleagues, in groups for teen girls, acted out in games at a shelter for abused women, as quiet conversation among middle school students on a field trip, and as a random question or comment seemingly out of the blue during some recreational event, like a baseball game or Halloween Party. During most times when the topic emerged, there was a tentative and questioning look or brief and uneasy pause where I sensed a combination of hope and caution, curiosity and reservation.

For me as a young adult with a myriad of my own grief experiences (both those stemming from my childhood and those experienced as an adult), I recognized these occasions as both an opportunity and challenge. I would not be the adult who shifted uncomfortably in my seat, quickly changed the subject, nor would I be the adult who said all the textbook things while beginning to feel my body temperature rise under the stress. I would not be the adult who assumed the role of therapist and expert and forged ahead with a therapeutic treatment plan instead of a gentle conversation. What I determined with each interaction is that I would honor and accept the uniqueness of each child and their pace in grieving. I would continue to simply be me – warm, caring, intuitive, and always a listener. My stance, my calm, my willingness to allow children the space and time to deal in starts and stops with their grief, seemed always a surprise and relief to the young people I’ve met. Once given the permission and opportunity to discuss their losses, many of these young people had a lot to say, ask, wonder, and solve. And they always seem both surprised and relieved to be setting the tone and pace of the exploration.

As rewarding as the direct work with children has and continues to be, the broader goal of providing support and training to professionals in this area has been a personal mission for me. It became abundantly clear to me in my work with schools and youth agencies that one can have the correct letters before or after their name, be in an assigned role of a counselor, and be uncomfortable dealing with this topic with children. Parents as well as professionals too can be bombarded with myths about children and grief that further breakdown the communication and build roadblocks instead of bridges toward understanding. It seems to me that if you can deal with this topic you’re obliged to dispel the myths, share your experiences, discover effective tools and activities, and increase the comfort and skill level of other adults, both professionals and the community at large. I subscribe to the belief Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross shared with a reporter who asked her who was qualified to work with issues related to death and dying . . .“Anybody who loves to work with people and is compassionate, understanding, and willing to get rid of their own unfinished business. That is the only requirement.”

I’ve shared that statement with every group, small or large, of adults I’ve spoken to on the topic of grief and children. It is indeed “the elephant in the room”, a topic that makes most of us on some level uncomfortable and unsure of what to say or do. This discomfort seems only magnified when children are factored into the equation. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say too much? What if they are too young to understand? What if I make them feel worse? What if they ask a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t know what to say at all? So many questions and yet I believe at the heart of all the questions and all the uneasiness is what Dr. Kubler Ross referred to as “unfinished business.” You can know the textbook things to say, understand all the theories, and be unable to work with children who are grieving. In my experience it is a matter of learning to get comfortable with the elephant and learning to ride out the periods when you are uncomfortable as a possible bridge for continued personal and professional growth.

In this area as well as others, social workers, counselors, teachers, adults in general must be acutely aware of their own feelings, beliefs, and thoughts related to death and dying. If this topic makes us uncomfortable, all the more reason we need to better comprehend the nature of grief and the value of supporting children. If we are to be helpful to those we serve we must constantly look inward to recognize our own core beliefs, values, fears, and misconceptions. To work with grieving children is to embrace the losses we have already experienced as children and now as adults and to bravely meet those losses that inevitably await us on this brief stay on earth. One’s attitudes and thoughts on the issue of death and dying greatly impact on the efficacy of the therapeutic relationship. The commitment to know thyself becomes paramount to this work and one’s success.

We are first and foremost, human, long before we ever chose the profession of social work or counseling. I believe taking inventory, not once, but on a regular basis, of our experiences of loss as children and adults and our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual responses, is a worthwhile process and one that only sharpens our ability to work effectively with children who are grieving. By thinking back to our childhood losses we can reconnect with the perceptions and perspectives we had about death. We can also more easily identify our own fears and biases. It has been my experience that when dealing with children of all ages, honesty and empathy are the greatest communication builders. Sharing our humanity with children sets the stage for understanding and self-awareness, both are critical to a relationship of therapeutic integrity and authenticity.

In practical terms, this means a lot of self-reflection and internal exploration of those very grief experiences we’ve sustained. For many people this is an uncomfortable process but I believe short-circuiting this process will only interfere with one’s efficacy with children. It is a complicated and highly charged emotional dance between a therapist and client. The process can become even more difficult if the professional is not aware or not dealing with unresolved grief issues. We can find ourselves inadvertently stifling communication or unknowingly displacing our feelings onto the child. Again I say “know thyself.” If it’s uncomfortable then good – it should be – if you’re never uncomfortable than it may be that you are not digging deep enough. For me it has always been a wake-up call to complete any activity I would bring to a group prior to that group. I’ve colored, made collages, selected music, written letters, and completed many other tasks revisiting my own grief work again and again. Grief work then is all about getting comfortable with the elephant, taking time to remember the elephants in your own childhood and adulthood homes, and assuming the position of Companion in a child’s grief journey. This article is merely a teaser, an invitation to reflect on the too often overlooked topic of grief, a chance to wet your appetite, consider your own experiences, and hopefully inspire you to continue your own education and professional development in the area of supporting grieving children.

© Copyright 2008 by Marianne Esolen, LCSW R, therapist in Huntington, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • David

    David

    May 29th, 2008 at 1:02 PM

    There are no others on earth who need our care and support more than the children who have experienced painful losses in their lives. It is up to us as adults to give them the love that they need and to support them no matter what the cost.

  • Caroline G.

    Caroline G.

    May 29th, 2008 at 1:14 PM

    You sound like a wonderful therapist. empathic and wise, and I am happy that you bravely deal with this issue instead of avoiding it.
    One of my 4 children is adopted and we regularly deal with all aspects of her loss in any way that is suitable to her. I am a movement therapist and so am adept at helping her express herself in physical movement and releasing some of her pent-up emotions, and then we talk about it afterwards…until the next time, and the next.
    We are soon to foster a child from Sudan, from the Darfur region, and I am intrigued as to how his issues of loss will come up.
    We have been greatly helped by consulting with many parenting experts on how parents can improve communication at home and would like to share our resources. Please have a look at:
    easierparentingmiddleschool.com

  • Jillian

    Jillian

    May 30th, 2008 at 3:09 AM

    I am definitely going to take a look at your site. As the stepmom of middle school kids it is so important to recognize from a very early age when things are not going well and it sounds like your site may provide answers to that. Thanks for the resource and I will give you some feedback on that very soon.

  • upstatesc

    upstatesc

    May 31st, 2008 at 2:57 AM

    Anyone regardless of age is going to benefit from a little care and understanding from others. this is especially true of young kids who have lost a loved one or significant person in their lives. They so often do not understand the healthiest ways to deal with these losses and it is crucial for their future health that we teach them the many steps of the grieving process and the best ways to cope with the sadness that they inevitably and understandably feel.

  • Amyhop

    Amyhop

    June 9th, 2008 at 4:35 AM

    It can be so sad to see children who have experienced a great loss but yet have been given absolutely no tools or guidance for dealing with this pain. many write off the emotions and feelings of children as insignificant simply because they are young, but I think that it is sometimes these wounds that we experience in childhood which often cut the deepest and make the greatest impact on us throughout our lives.

  • Kyle

    Kyle

    June 10th, 2008 at 9:17 AM

    Of course they do- we carry so much of our childhoos with us for the rest of our lives- these are the things that will haunt us or make us smile forever. There need to be more services to help children deal with the frief that they may experience in their lives and perhaps they will remain better equipped for their adult lives.

  • ashley

    ashley

    June 18th, 2008 at 4:44 AM

    And how do we get others on the periphery involved in the care of children who are experiencing these issues? We need teachers, ministers, and community leaders to huddle around our kids and protect them from the hurt way better than what we are currently doing.

  • Margo

    Margo

    June 24th, 2008 at 1:26 PM

    And who is to say that they are not doing that already? But all of this still needs to be reinforced in the home- without that it sometimes feels like you are fighting a losing battle.

  • Nikki

    Nikki

    June 29th, 2008 at 11:06 AM

    It is so easy to ofetn overlook what kids are dealing with because so many of them just have this tendency to go inward when they are facing challenges. It is crucial that we talk to them and keep them talking in return to get the emotions out there.

  • Sandy

    Sandy

    June 30th, 2008 at 10:02 AM

    There are so many fabulous resources out there to help us deal with grief and loss, and yet so many of us turn to these in our times of need. We need to make good use of these services and hekp our children get the emotional care they need to survive the terrible event.

  • tina

    tina

    May 31st, 2015 at 7:00 PM

    I like how you said you would not be the therapist or repeat what the books said for you to say. But that you remained yourself. I think we all have intuitions that we must follow that cannot be found in just one book or online, especially for our own children. Although if we are unsure how to handle a situation there are many great helps available.

    parentarizona.com/8-ways-to-break-through-teenage-walls

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