Looking Inside Ourselves: Supporting Children in Times of Grief

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.”

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