Grade Schoolers and Military Loss
Author: Gloria Horsley
Military families know resilience. Moves from base to base and long deployments can weigh on the family unit. But, for grade schoolers, constantly leaving friends and starting new schools where they don’t know anyone is an additional pressure. On top of that, when a family member or loved one is lost in the military, there is an incredible amount of trauma.
Maybe your child has to change schools after you’ve moved off base. Maybe a loved one died while your child was not in school yet, and you have to navigate the waters of the first day of school alone. Maybe your child was no longer comfortable in his or her school and requested a change. There are many ways parents and guardians can support their grade schoolers as they head into the school year and adjust to their new normal.
Work with the School
Many schools have significant resources to help students achieve success, both academically and personally. Besides just the academic tools available, many schools have counselors and therapists on site who work with children at the elementary school level to provide support and assist with emotional issues. Sometimes, schools even bring in grief specialists to speak about what it means to lose a loved one. Most school systems have specialists that travel between campuses, and parents can request this support through the school guidance counseling office.
Since the school might not know your child yet, it helps to schedule a meeting with administrators and teachers to explain the recent death in the family and the impact it is having on your son, daughter, grandchild, niece or nephew. You can explain his or her usual personality and how it has changed since losing your loved one. This can help teachers and administrative staff to better understand the child and respond accordingly. Since your child could exhibit behavior of anger or withdrawal, knowing where it comes from can help school personnel know how best to react.
Together you can create a plan to help your child while leveraging available counseling on campus if necessary. Most teachers and school administrators, especially near military bases, have been trained on the various differences of what military families experience with stress, deployment and loss.
TAPS has resources too. “Grief Support for Military Children: A Guide for School Personnel” is a pamphlet to help educators improve school care for grieving military children and youth. You can request a copy by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and most current address.
Recognize Developmental Delays
Your young child’s grief can delay his or her learning and cognitive development. On an emotional level, children can also regress as a reaction to this type of loss. They may require more attention and affection – as will you. Organizations such as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Big Brother and Big Sister programs can be a good source of support as can one’s religious community. Also talk to friends and family; just discussing your concerns can be very helpful.
You can explore possible developmental delays with your child's teacher and/or counselor to see how to help at home. The teacher or counselor may recommend engaging in learning or healing games using a tablet or smartphone. Other activities you can do together include reading grief-related children’s books. Barharris.com is a great place to find age-appropriate books to support grieving children. Books offer an opportunity for discussion and can give children the attention and emotional support they seek while helping with developmental delays. Again, don’t be afraid to turn to friends and family. When it’s time to read that goodnight story, give others the opportunity to be of service to you. Of course not everyone will respond to your needs, but you might be surprised by who turns up to help.
Listen, Share and Play
At this age, your child may have trouble expressing his or her feelings with words. You can listen to what he or she tries to tell you, but you can also come to his or her level.
Grab some paper and crayons, and create pictures together. Shelly Klammer’s Expressive Art Inspirations website, is a great place to go for inspiration. There, Shelly gives 100 excellent art therapy exercises. Grade school children often feel comfortable using this type of creative outlet to express their feelings. Do this regularly to help your child work through feelings, provide reassurance and let them know they’re going to be okay. Making pictures yourself can help with your own challenges in expressing grief. The trend toward adult coloring books in recent years revealed the therapeutic benefits of making art. Spending time with kids and doing what they enjoy can be one of the best ways to help them and you through these tough times.
Listen to your child talk about what other kids may ask at school. Other children may knowingly or unknowingly say something cruel to your child, and your child may want to share with you. It's important to acknowledge this hurt or confusion and work through how your child can ignore or address these comments should they happen again.
Build a Local Support Network
You can also help your grade schooler with his or her grief by seeking support for yourself. In this way, you can assist them by getting advice and counseling that can create individual and family strategies to help you shape your future. Like your child, a move or change may have limited your access to family and friends. Look for local groups that offer grief support, like TAPS Care Groups. You may meet other surviving military and civilian families struggling with the same emotions. From here, you can build a support network for your child and yourself to help as your family finds its new normal.
Remember that your grade schooler is handling a lot at his or her young age. There will be many emotions he or she doesn't understand. The best thing you can do is ride it out with your child, be there and give as much love as possible.
From the pen of…
Gloria Horsley, Ph.D., is founder and president of Open to Hope, past faculty member of the University of Rochester and member of the TAPS speakers bureau and the national advisory council of The Compassionate Friends, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation and Forbes nonprofit council. She blogs for the Huffington Post, MADD and Forbes.