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RESPONSES TO LOSS
Several psychologists and grief researchers have studied the grief process and attempted to describe stages of bereavement, primarily in adults (Kubler-Ross, 1969; Rando, 1991). No two individuals grieve in exactly the same way, however. This is especially true with young people, who are at varying levels of cognitive and emotional development. Regardless of the need to accept individual differences, there are some generalities that can be used as a framework for understanding dealing with a loss. TOLA considers 4 main tasks or stages in bereavement and uses these as guidelines in working with young people:
We can think of this as the 4 R’s:
Recognition: The griever needs to recognize the loss, and this process involves understanding. What exactly is death? Children may need specific information in order to face reality and comprehend what has happened in their lives. Many people are in denial after a loss occurs, but recognizing and defining events is the crucial first step in bereavement.
Reaction: Grief elicits a variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, and guilt. Bereaved people need a safe place in which to express these feelings. Children may need help identifying their conflicting reactions. Many young people are overwhelmed with the intensity of their emotions and are reluctant to express them for various reasons. The need for catharsis is real and vital to the healing process.
Re-experience: This process can take several forms depending on the individual. Much of re-experience means that the lost loved one is remembered and mourned. Recollections of time spent together, especially positive memories, can reassure a young person that their person will live on their memory. Sometimes, if a child has dissociated emotionally after a loss, the child may naturally try to reenact the trauma of learning that a loved one died. Children may need to reprocess the loss in order to move forward.
Readjustment: The bereaved individual eventually needs to rebuild a life without the loved one. This process is highly individualized and depends on the circumstances of the loss; however, at this point the griever will have some level of acceptance and will be on the path of re-investing in life. This is not the end of the grieving process, but it is the first step in understanding that life goes on despite pain and loss.
TIPS FOR HELPING A GRIEVING CHILD
DURING THE HOLIDAYS
Holidays can be especially difficult for someone who has lost a loved one, even if the loss is not recent. Reminders of the past and happier times are everywhere, and there is creasing pressure to be happy, joyful, and grateful. Feelings of sadness are easily triggered. Below are some specific tips that can be useful in supporting bereaved kids during this time:
1. Acknowledge the feelings and don’t add on pressure to “enjoy the season.” Telling someone to “just be happy” is not helpful and only adds guilt to the equation.
2. Talk with the child about how some traditions might change, but new traditions can begin. Start this new tradition with the memory of the loved one in mind. Some specific ideas might be to make a special memorial ornament, light a designated candle, or create a holiday collage with pictures of the lost loved one.
3. Discuss holiday plans with the child. Depending on the specific circumstances, some families may prefer to stay home, while others may decide to travel somewhere completely new. Be open to new ideas and try to work together to find plans with which all are comfortable.
4. Don’t over schedule or overcommit. During holiday times, it is natural for people to have a busy schedule filled with activities and plans. This situation can make anyone feel stressed at times, but someone who is grieving may be particularly prone to fatigue and distraction. Pick some activities you all will enjoy, but be reasonable and don’t overburden someone who is grieving.
5. For at least some of the time, try to focus on helping others. Help your child choose a gift to donate to a charity, or spend a couple of hours working at a soup kitchen. This type of activity refocuses perspective and can help a child feel good about him/herself.
6. Encourage the child to be kind to him/herself. If you are the child’s caregiver, do the same for yourself. Pamper yourselves with a special meal or a small gift, or just spend time relaxing or doing something fun. Also remember to take good physical care of yourselves. Grief is a process, and each little thing adds up to stronger resilience and coping skills.
7. Be aware of red flags that may indicate a child is having a particularly hard time and may need more help. Feelings of depression, including suicidal ideation, are especially strong during holiday times. Don’t be afraid to ask a child how he/she is feeling, and reach out for support if you think it is needed.
8. Give yourselves time and space, and realize that there are many “normal” ways to grieve. There is also no set timetable for grief. As long as the reactions are not destructive, be patient.