What Kids Want Their Adults to Know about Grief
Author: Karissa Kelley
Editor’s note: November is National Children’s Grief Awareness Month. Throughout the month, we will feature stories from surviving children, grief professionals and TAPS staff to draw attention to the needs of grieving children, and how best to support them.
At the end of a TAPS Good Grief Camp or Family Camp, Youth Programs staff asks each child to complete a brief survey. All of these children have experienced the death of a parent or sibling. They come from all over the country to participate in grief camp with their families and they are some of the most courageous people you could hope to meet. If we are willing to listen, these youngest survivors have much to teach their adults about grief and mourning. These four lessons were drawn from the most repeated themes of this summer’s survey results. This is what kids said about their grief:
Lesson #1: Kids need community
Over and over in the surveys, when asked what they liked about camp or what they would want another child to know about Family Camp, kids said that it is a place where they can “bond” with their family, or “get to meet other people who have been through the same thing.” Just like for adults, grief for kids can feel very isolating. It too often feels like they are the only person in the world who feels the way they do. Kids need to know they are not alone.
Community can be found in any number of places—school, grief groups, play dates—but it can also be found right at home. Kids want to connect with their family members.
Lesson #2: Kids need to be themselves
Kids pick up on how society stigmatizes grief. It is all too easy for a child’s grief to become something they don’t talk about or acknowledge. Similar to a physical illness, sometimes we refer to “grief symptoms.” Kids need a place where it is OK for their “grief symptoms” to show. Just as it is with adults, grief for kids comes in waves. Kids often may not understand what is happening or why their emotions are changing suddenly. According to one child, they needed a place to “release their bad energy.” For another child, being herself meant needing somewhere she could “have fun, feel safe, love, (be with) friends, (and have) nap time.”
Lesson #3: Kids need activities
Have you ever noticed your child talks more while fidgeting with a toy or riding in the car? Often, “just talking” does not work for a child; they can feel uncomfortable and withdraw. An activity provides a vehicle to understanding. Using a physical or artistic prompt can assist a child in connecting with their experience and communicating it so you both understand each other. According to one child, projects helped them connect with their peers, “(We did) a whole bunch of activities with kids who know how you feel when you lose a loved one.” To another child, they reflected on an art activity and said, “we worked on grief, I loved when we smashed the pots.”
Lesson #4: Kids need fun
The most used word in all the surveys was “fun.” Kids who are grieving are still, first and foremost, children. Talking, crying and hard emotions are part of healing, however , it is good and right for them to desire fun and for fun to be their favorite part. For one child, it was as if he described two sides of the same coin in saying he needed “healing and fun.” The presence of fun does not dismiss the reality of pain; a running, laughing, smiling child can still feel very, very sad. For all of us adults, perhaps this is the biggest lesson kids can teach us. You can feel happiness. You can laugh. In the next moment, you can cry.
The children with whom I have the honor of working, are the bravest, most amazing humans I’ve ever met. They love, and grieve, and laugh, and play, and cry, and remember with their whole hearts. As we recognize Children’s Grief Awareness Month, it is my hope for all of us to have a moment to reflect on and learn from these phenomenal humans.
From the pen of...
Karissa Kelley, LPC, CT, is a licensed professional counselor and certified thanatologist. She is the TAPS Youth Programs manager and the suicide surviving sister of Airman 1st Class Caleb Kelley. For more information, visit TAPS Youth Programs.
Photos: Katya Muscat