BY: Michelle Martin McSherry, MsEd, GC-C
Certified School Psychologist
Certified Grief Counselor
As we travel through this journey of life, we are often faced with losses that overcome us in ways that we cannot comprehend. Some losses are easier to face than others and further, each of us handles the experience differently. What one may consider a significant loss could be insignificant to someone else. When working with children, the concept of “loss” becomes even more complex.
Children are still learning the coping strategies in order to deal with stressful events. In a child’s mind, a fight with a friend or a poor test grade can be considered a significant loss in their minds. These are examples of loss of a relationship or loss of a dream or goal. Children of divorce have experienced loss, loss of a “family” as they once knew it. Although they may seem superficial to some, they can be debilitating to a grieving child who does not have the support and skills to work through their feelings.
Suicide is complicated for adults, so one can imagine how difficult this might be for a child to comprehend. When dealing with a suicide, which is a “complicated loss”, we experience what is called “complicated grief”. If a child experiences loss as a result of a suicide, then he/she may have questions that are not easily answered. How do we explain what precipitated a suicide? How do we protect our children from the pain of the unknown? How do we answer the questions of a young child? How much information do we share, what is too much and what is too little? These questions are not easily answered because all children are different and are at different stages in their lives. Children are curious beings; they want answers. It is important to find a balance between too little and too much information. Finding this balance is extremely important and complicated. Other children can repress their feelings and act as they normally would. It is important not to assume that a child is not experiencing any reactions to a loss just because they are not expressing them. In either case, grief counseling is vital in order to give the child the best opportunity to work through their grief in a healthy manner.
If a child is having a difficult time working through the grieving process, you may see behavior changes such as change in sleep pattern, increased or decreased appetite, aggression, extreme sadness, withdrawal, change in ability to concentrate and/or regression. It is important for them to work with a trained professional to help them to sort out their feelings. If grief is not worked through properly, it can stay with a person for a lifetime. We must create a supportive environment in which a child is able to express their feelings and ask their questions, no matter how difficult they are.
So, now that you know that seeking professional help is the best thing to do to help children dealing with loss, where do you get the help? The first place to start is at your child’s school. They should be able to assist you in finding a counselor. Your child’s teachers should be notified so that they can look for any warning signs of depression, aggression, regression and/or any other behaviors of concern. The school may also have your child meet with a school psychologist, social worker, or guidance counselor to him/her to remain successful in school. Another great resource would be your child’s pediatrician, who can also recommend a grief counselor. These professionals can give advice and suggestions as to how to help your child in school and at home. You can also contact your county to see what services they are able to provide and/or recommend. Insurance companies often cover counseling, but if not, many counselors offer services on a sliding scale, according to your income.
Be your child’s advocate and don’t assume, no matter how young or old, that your child can work through grief on his/her own. Be persistent in finding them the appropriate help. There is a wealth of help out there for families in need, but it is not always easy to find. Take advantage of the professionals that are already working with your child. Work together with them to help to create the best plan to help your child to work through grief.
Recommended Reading: Talking With Children About Loss by Maria Trozzi with Kathy Massimini