Growing Up TAPS: Raising Bereaved Children

Author: Andy McNiel

When a military spouse or partner dies, the surviving family members — including the children — face challenges. The family may have to relocate, thus losing a community of support; the surviving spouse or partner becomes the only parent to their children; and everyone in the family experiences grief in their own way, often isolating from one another. Surviving parents often struggle with how to connect with their children, how to effectively discipline their children, and how to help themselves and their children in their grief.

The reality is that we cannot do everything at once. When we are grieving, we only have so much energy to give. As your family grieves and you all find your footing again after loss, consider a place to start building a new normal. At TAPS, we find it helpful to start by identifying, naming, and beginning to incorporate the things you all value as a family. With a poster board or large piece of paper and some markers, sit down with your children and come up with four or five values that you all can agree to prioritize. Make these a focus, and hold one another accountable to these values daily. To help you get started, we are sharing five values many surviving families have found helpful, even in the midst of grief.


Boys pose by father's photo on hero wall

Teen at TAPS Good Grief camp

Brothers pose at Good Grief Camp




This is a practice that takes time to develop. The more you practice taking a deep breath — reminding yourself that you are OK in that moment — and choosing your reaction to a situation (rather than just reacting without any forethought), the more patient you will become. There is no doubt that many things in life can test our patience, and this is particularly true when we are grieving. Grief also takes time, and there are aspects of our grief that will continue to be with us throughout our lives. Focusing individually and as a family on being patient and in control of our actions and responses will help both you and your children live and even grow mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially while navigating grief.




Giving grace to yourself and others in the family is a keystone of healthy relationships. None of us is perfect, and sometimes grief adds to our frustrations or leads to outbursts, arguments, or misunderstandings. Being able to lead with grace, forgive one another, and reconcile differences goes a long way toward healing. It also builds an internal strength where we are in control of our choices. Grace is just as much an act of will as patience. And, in some ways, the two are connected. As we practice patience, we can better see what is behind a situation or a particular behavior and be better able to forgive that person, even as they are acting out.




Practicing patience and grace often leads to kindness. Patience slows us down enough to think about how we react to a situation; then, we choose our course of action. As we slow down in a situation, we can often lead with grace and choose a behavior that is kind. Kindness is not timid, nor is kindness weak. Kindness, when measured out with grace and patience, carries strength with it. We, as parents, can be consistent, firm, and resolved when we discipline our children, and we can show them kindness, patience, and grace. Kindness is also something that we can practice every day in our lives with our family, our friends, and with strangers. Kindness requires a mental shift from looking for our own good to thinking about what is good for others. Kindness is a gift you can give your children that they can incorporate into their own lives and extend to others. Kindness opens doors.




Accepting personal responsibility is an important trait to develop in your children that will serve them well throughout their lives. Being responsible involves telling the truth, being a good sport (win or lose), trying something again — even if it went wrong the first time, getting back up after a fall, owning mistakes, and asking for forgiveness when needed. Holding yourself and one another accountable, even when you are grieving, is important. Grief is often a reason why children (and adults) may have outbursts of anger or behave in ways that are not appropriate. Grief longs to be validated and should never be punished. Behavior, on the other hand, has to have consequences or children may grow up believing that they do not have to be responsible for their behavior.

When holding yourself or your children accountable for behavior and enacting a consequence (punishment), begin by acknowledging the grief that may be behind the behavior, saying something like, “I see that you are angry, and I wonder if that is related to your grief over your [dad, mom, uncle, etc.]. It is OK to have these feelings — they are normal. However, it is not OK to [hit your sibling, talk back to your mother or father, be mean to your friend, not share, etc.].” This response separates the behavior from the grief reaction, validates the grief, and holds children accountable for their behavior. In this, we are teaching personal responsibility for our behaviors, no matter how we might be feeling on the inside.




We have all heard that laughter is the best medicine, and this can be true. Allowing humor, laughter, and fun into your home again after loss is important. This demonstrates — for you and your children — the need for balance in our lives. While it is important to lean into our grief and experience our pain as we adapt to our loss, it is also important to lean into life, living, and fun. Though it may be challenging, particularly early in our grief, laughter and humor can be a healing balm for your family. Children are better able to do this than teenagers and adults, yet humor is important to everyone of all ages. At first, you may feel guilty for laughing in the wake of your loss. This is normal. As you allow humor back into your life, though, you will see it impacts each family member’s outlook.

Grief takes time and there are aspects of grief that continue to be with us throughout our lives. Grief is not a problem we can fix. It is an experience we must live no matter how painful. Yet, amid our grief, we do have choices. Identifying and establishing shared values that we can live within our home and in our community is important. These values can become the keystone on which personal growth, good character, and healthy development rest.

Mom helps daughter on rock climbing wall

TAPS Youth Programs

TAPS Youth Programs can support you and your children through grief with age-appropriate activities and plenty of opportunities to grow as a family while making memories together. Make plans to grow with us in 2024.

Andy McNiel, MA, is the Senior Advisor, TAPS Youth Programs.

Photos: TAPS Archives