Connecting with the Child and Family When Loss and Grief Occur
by Janice Fletcher, Ed.D.
Child, Family, and Consumer Studies
University of Idaho
Suzanne Planck, M.S.
Child Life Specialist
Gritman Medical Center
A loss occurs. A child learns to cope with that loss by the way the adults around that child react. Childcare providers have a role in connecting with families and children as they learn to cope with the loss.
STRATEGIES FOR CONNECTING WITH THE GRIEVING CHILD
- Adapt the environment at school to support the child's physical needs.Loss and grief often result in physical fatigue. Be willing to adjust the schedules for the child to help the child rest. Keep in mind that routine is important for emotional security, but physical needs must also be considered.
- A strategy that has low costs for center personnel and big benefits for grieving children and families is maintenance of routines in the center. The familiar routine of the center is comforting for children and families. Because loss and the resultant changes shake stability, a secure and routine place is especially welcomed during times of loss.
Make sure the child's day is routine and undemanding. Parents and children need a setting where they can count on things being "the same" when other parts of their lives are in flux.
- Loss means change. Attention to secondary losses that are associated with the primary loss is important. Be ready to acknowledge and help a child understand those changes. For example, when a child moves, changes in climate and geography will mean a change in what and how the child plays. For a child who lives near a warm beach, a move to a rainy cooler climate in the mountains will necessitate discussion of how playing outside will be fun, but different. The change in the way the family sleeps in their new house, or the differences in the childcare playground and the new children at the center can be discussed before the child moves.
- Be alert to the child's expectations of recovering from the loss. Allow the child to tell and express thoughts and feelings, rather than trying to cheer up the child. Listen to the child's thoughts about the loss and hear the child's expectations. Help the child have realistic expectations.
One five-year-old child said, upon the death of both her grandmother and her cat, "Maybe it would be better if we just thought they were gone away and we didn't know where." She thought about this, and then said, "No, that would not be good, because we would always be wondering where they were." This child was working on realistic expectations.
A school age child told her friend, who lost her father to death; "At least you know where your dad is. My dad just left us. I know he is out there somewhere." A first grade child worked excessively hard do perfect schoolwork. She made a pact with herself that if she did perfect work, Santa Claus would bring back her father who died in the previous summer.
Listen to the children and make your responses compatible to what they tell you, rather than telling them YOUR ideas. Avoid the temptation to answer the child's questions. Instead listen and allow the child to explore their thoughts.
STRATEGIES FOR CONNECTING WITH GRIEVING FAMILIES
- Be available for communication when parents arrive and depart. Let parents know that you are available to help their children with expected change. Expected changes include such things as losing a terminally ill relative or moving because of a planned job change. Be available to talk with parents when unexpected change occurs. Sudden death of a loved one or an unplanned separation of parents are examples of unplanned losses.
- Be sensitive to parent boundaries about their willingness or need to share details of the loss. Avoid being pushy about details.
- Learn what the family beliefs are in relation to the loss. Be respectful of their beliefs and do not override their beliefs with your own beliefs when talking with the child. Share with parents their hildren's concerns and questions about the loss. Make sure the parents are comfortable with you talking and responding to their child.
- Acknowledge grief related to the loss of possibilities as the child or parent brings them up. The loss of possibilities can be as difficult to ork through as the initial loss.
- Be sensitive to the family's needs for privacy. Do not reveal even the smallest details of a family's loss to others. Talk with the family about how to talk with others in your program about their loss.
- Recognize that the grieving child and family may be vulnerable to events that they would otherwise find easy to handle. Such vulnerability may show up in separation distress at arrival and departure, the child's regression to less skilled behavior such as thumb sucking or toileting accidents, or the child's unusual fear when a parent is late to pick her up at the end of the day.
- Become familiar with agencies that you can refer children and their families to for help. It helps to learn about the agency before you need to make a referral.
- Be genuine in acknowledging the loss, but be careful to approach with empathy rather than pity. The child and family need you to be understanding, not pitying.
- Avoid having personal expectations of when a child or family should be "over with" their expressions of grief. Grief is a personal experience and is a process rather than an event.
The number one strategy for connecting with grieving families and children is to listen to them, and to learn from those who are grieving. A connection can be made when we genuinely acknowledge the grieving person's teachings about the very personal process of grief.
WEB SITES THAT PROVIDE USEFUL INFORMATION ABOUT CHILDREN AND LOSS
The Kids Place: A Grief support Center for Children and Their Families
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Fitzgerald, H. (1992) The Grieving Child: A Parent's Guide. Fireside/Simon & Schuster. New York, New York.
Grollman, E.A. (1990) Talking About Death: A Dialogue between Parent and Child. Beacon Press. Boston, MA
Jewett, C.L. (1982) Helping Children Cope with Separation and Loss. The Harvard Common Press. Harvard, MA.
Kroen, W.C. (1996) Helping Children Cope with the Loss of a Loved One. Free Spirit Publishing Inc. Minneapolis, MN.
McCue, K. (1994) How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness. St. Martin's Press. New York, NY.
Schuurman, D.L., & Schweizer, J. (1997)Helping Children Cope with Death. The Dougy Center for Grieving Children. Portland, OR
Wolfelt, A.D. (1991) A Child's View of Grief.Center for Loss and Life Transition. Fort Collins, CO
Wolfelt, A.D. (1996) Healing the Bereaved Child. Companion Press. Fort Collins, CO
RESOURCE CENTERS FOR BOOKS, EDUCATION, AND SUPPORT FOR ISSUES OF GRIEF AND LOSS
The Center for Loss and Life Transition
3735 Broken Bow Road
Fort Collins, CO 80526
The Centering Corporation
1531 N. Saddle Creek Road
Omaha, NE 68104
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children
3909 S. E. 52nd Avenue
Portland, OR 97286
Janice Fletcher, Associate Professor
Child, Family, and Consumer Studies
University of Idaho
Moscow, Idaho 83844