This article is made possible by a partnership with the Marion County Commission on Youth. Indy with Kids is proud to support the work of MCCOY and help communicate information that is important for the youth of our community.
Written by Jacie Farris
For many, the holidays are a time of joy, laughter and fun memories. For some, though, this season can be a reminder of pain, depression and mourning. This is true for many children who are grieving due to loss or trauma.
“Grief encompasses the thoughts and feelings we experience when we endure a loss,” said Elizabeth Boring, coordinator of bereavement services for the Hope in Healing Pediatric Bereavement Program, which offers grief support to families who have experienced the death of a child at Indiana University Health’s Riley Hospital for Children. “Mourning, which is heavily influenced by culture and society, is how we are able to express our grief as we journey through it. Grief is a natural response to death, but can also be a result of other types of losses such as changing schools, losing abilities due to injury or illness, divorce, foster care, etc.”
“Grief is our body’s natural response to change,” said Kelly Petersohn, hospice bereavement manager and youth grief specialist with Community Healing Hearts and Camp Erin, a Moyer Foundation camp for children and teens who are grieving the death of a loved one. “Grief is experienced after the death of a loved one as the bereaved learn to adjust to a life without their physical presence. Everyone experiences grief differently dependent on a multitude of circumstances.”
As Petersohn mentioned, it is important to remember that not all children grieve in the same way or for the same reason, but they all need support to find ways to handle their emotions in healthy ways.
“Grief is everything we experience inside ourselves when we experience trauma, be it a significant loss, death or traumatic event,” said Carol Braden, clinical director of programs and services at Brooke’s Place, an organization that provides support groups, therapy services and community education to help children, teens, young adults and their families. “Every person experiences their internal grief uniquely; therefore, how our grief is turned outward (‘grieving’ or ‘mourning’) is unique as well.”
According to Braden, it is important to note that youth often grieve differently than adults.
“Children cannot grieve as adults grieve. Adults cannot grieve as a child grieves,” she said. “We grieve where we are developmentally. The younger we are developmentally, the shorter the intense aspects of our grief will come out. The older we are developmentally, the more our being can sustain letting out the intense parts of our grief. The younger we are developmentally, the more we grieve through our play. Even adults grieve through play. At Brooke’s Place, we hold play with great respect, because we know this is how most children and teens integrate their grief story and learn to thrive in the midst of their grief.”
There are serious detriments for children and teens who do not learn healthy ways to grieve. Petersohn has observed that when youth are not given proper support, they tend to act out, perform poorly in school and show signs of physical symptoms of grief.
Braden agreed, saying that “people who experience trauma or death [of a loved one] are four times more likely to experience depression and anxiety and develop a substance abuse problem, and [they] are 15 times more likely to die by suicide.”
For adults who work closely with youth, training in grief and support can be extremely helpful. According to Braden, Brooke’s Place requires volunteer facilitators, those who work directly within the support groups, to complete more than 20 hours of training and participate in post-training interviews and criminal background checks. These individuals also receive continuous support and feedback from program staff.
Boring listed the following educational opportunities for caregivers:
- The National Alliance for Grieving Children
- The National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement
- The Coalition to Support Grieving Students
- The Dougy Center
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors
- The Center for Loss and Life Transitions
Supporting those who are grieving can be difficult, but also very rewarding and even life-changing. One child at Camp Erin recently wrote that the camp taught helpful coping skills and instilled the idea that “we are still connected to our loved ones even after they have passed.”
“Never underestimate the importance of reaching out to a grieving child and family,” said Boring. “Many people avoid reaching out because they are worried they will make the child or family member sad, or they simply do not know what to say. Reach out and simply say, “You were on my heart today and I just wanted you to know I am thinking of you.’”
“The number one benefit that children, teens, young adults and their adult caregivers say that they received at Brooke’s Place is the powerful feeling of not being alone,” said Braden. “Our guest speaker, Noel Sudano, [said] the most poignant turn in her grief journey occurred while being a volunteer facilitator at Brooke’s Place during her masters in school counseling internship. Noel was 16 years old and a survivor during the 1999 Columbine shootings.”
For those needing to identify practical ways to support grieving youth, Petersohn provided the following list.
- When they are ready to talk, be ready to listen.
- Be honest and answer questions with age-appropriate answers.
- Provide a calm, compassionate presence for the child. Sometimes saying nothing is better than anything you could say to try to make it “better.”
- Maintain routine and consistency wherever possible.
- Model what good grief looks like. Kids will watch the adults in their lives to determine what grief is supposed to look like.
- Allow and encourage your child to remember and identify ways to honor their special person that died.
For additional resources regarding grief, bereavement, trauma and support for youth, Braden recommends that parents and adults working with youth view the online resource guide from Brooke’s Place. Other recommendations include the National Alliance for Grieving Children, New York Life Foundation’s A Child in Grief, the Family Lives on Foundation and What’s Your Grief.