What Grieving Children and Teens Tell Us They Need

The third Thursday of November each year is an important day. It is Children’s Grief Awareness Day, and this year it falls on November 17th. In lead up to the day, we are all encouraged to think about grieving children/teens who have experienced a life-altering death far earlier in life than anyone should have to. These are children/teens who may be members of our own families or extended family, who attend our schools, who live in our communities.
Children and teens have great inherent strength and resilience. Even after the death of an important person, they carry on with their lives. They continue with school. They play with their friends. They play sports. They hold part time jobs. However, there is another side of their life which is hidden. The changes to their family life, their loss, their grief.
If a child or teen in your life appears to be coping, it does not mean that they don’t need you. They do. They need you to understand what this loss means to them. They need your support and care. However, many of us don’t know what to do to help a grieving child or teen, and perhaps the idea of death makes us feel uncomfortable. So, often the adults and peers who are in the lives of grieving children and teens tend to avoid them, give unhelpful advice, or say hurtful things. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The following are a few simple suggestions which grieving children and youth have taught us that they need:

  • Lean in and Listen. The grieving child or teen needs you to take the time to be open to truly listening to them, without judgment
  • Answer their questions about death in age appropriate language. Children and teens need information in order to sort through and come to understand the death of their person. Offering to answer any questions that come up for them gives them permission to ask, and to grieve.
  • If you don’t have answers to questions, be honest. Kids have a great ability to know when we are faking it. It’s okay to not have all the answers. Often they just need someone to wonder with them.
  • Keep the grieving child/teen included in your life. So often grieving children/teens lose contact with their own extended families and parents’ friends. Call and offer play dates with your children. Help with driving to the child/teen’s activities.
  • Share your stories of the person who died. Your stories about the person can help build a memory bank for the child/teen, a precious gift.
  • Be there for the child/teen’s Parent/Guardian. Research shows that when a parent/guardian is supported and coping better, it helps their child/teen to thrive and be happier.

Out of the Mouths of Babes… the following are a few things that Lighthouse children would like people to know and understand:
“Give them (grieving children) time, give them a shoulder to cry on when they need it…be nice to them”
“Make me laugh…help me make new memories…don’t avoid me”
“Sometimes we need to be sad”
“I wish they wouldn’t ask why I don’t participate in Father’s Day”
“People say stupid things, like I understand because my dog died…they don’t understand unless they have suffered (a similar loss) too”
“Always respect what you have and who’s with you….live every moment!”

It is our hope at Lighthouse that grieving children and youth in every community will feel acknowledged and supported. Not just on the third Thursday of November, not just for the month of November. We hope the time will come when caring extended family and community members will be there for grieving children and teens EVERY day of the year.

Prepared by the Lighthouse for Grieving Children

NB: The Blue Butterfly is the international symbol of children’s grief

Grief Doesn’t Take a Holiday in Spring and Summer

Well, spring has (finally!) arrived. After the long dark and cold days of winter, how can we help but step lighter and feel that our life is starting anew. When the brown bare trees start to bud with flowers and green leaves, when gardens become colourful and the warm sun invites us to strip off the layers of coats and sweaters, most people feel happier about their lives. Many of us find that we are lifted with hope by thoughts of warm weather, and we are excited about planning summer days at the beach or holidays away.

However for some children or teens and their caregivers, the changing seasons often bring reminders of their grief. If the death of their special person happened in the spring when the lilacs were in bloom, the sight and smell of lilacs may suddenly trigger painful memories of the funeral. Getting out to the park to practice soccer or baseball are not so inviting when the parent who taught the child to play is no longer there to help improve his/her skills at the game.

Mother and Father’s Day are times when most children are guided by the other parent to make or buy a small gift to show appreciation and love for the celebrated parent. Often schools will include such activities as part of their curriculum. However for the child or teen for whose parent has died, Mother’s or Father’s Day are painful reminders to a child that other classmates have what they do not. It is a reminder that they are different.

The end of the school year is often a time for celebration, whether a child is leaving kindergarten, or graduating from middle school, high school, or college/university. For grieving families, the happiness of such days is tinged with sadness, because an important family member is missing from the picture. Long anticipated road trips with the family are just not the same when the parent or sibling who dreamed of this trip is not here to enjoy it with the remaining family members. And for children or youth who want to get excited about summer adventures, there is often an underlying feeling of guilt about allowing them self to engage in the fun activities of summer, and of life.

While grieving children, teens and parents/guardians eventually go forward with their lives, the little seasonal reminders of their grief and loss will always occur. So how to maintain strength and optimism, and not have the grief triggers of the warmer seasons overtake our happiness?

How Parents/Guardians Can support themselves and their grieving Child or Teen

We can never be sure about how we will feel when we are in the middle of the situations described above. Everyone experiences grief in their own way. However, as the parent/guardian who wants to ease the pain of their family’s grief, it can be helpful to be aware and prepare for the grief days which come with spring and summer. The following are few suggestions.

  • Take a look at the calendar, and make note of the upcoming events which may be more difficult grief days. Awareness is key to getting ahead of a grief tsunami.
  • If the birthday or anniversary of the special person will occur in the next few months, know that anticipation of the day in the weeks leading up to it will likely have an effect on the moods of the family members. Parents may receive calls from teachers around this time regarding their child/teen’s lack of focus or behavioural outbursts. Sometimes just acknowledging to family members that the day is coming up and that emotional upset is natural can help the child/teen understand why they are experiencing their feelings.
  • If it was a spouse who died, remind the teacher of the child’s loss well ahead of Mother’s day or Father’s day. Teachers have many children in their class with complex families. They are human, and may forget to be sensitive to your child’s situation. Your child may still want to do the class activity for their deceased parent, or they may need to be given the choice to be excused from during this time. Giving choice is key to helping the child/teen feel more in control of his/her grief.
  • If a graduation or other important milestone is coming up, it is usually better to acknowledge to your child before the big day that there will be sadness mixed with joy because the person who died won’t be present. Letting out painful feelings before the day can release some of the tension, and allow the child permission to celebrate their own success on the big day. Perhaps take some time to write a note or card for your child/teen about how proud the person would be of her/him. Or consider giving your child/teen a special item that belonged to the person who died, or framed photo of them together as a keepsake. In this way the child/teen can feel the person who died is included in the day in some small way.
  • Some parents/guardians and children feel dread or anxiousness about doing summer activities which the special person enjoyed. It can be helpful to check in with each other and plan the summer together. Some families find it helpful to explore new summer activities and visit new places away from the reminders of their loss, at least for the first couple years. However, it is important to also give children/teens the opportunities for remembering the person, which may include some of the yearly family summer traditions.
  • Try to let go of feeling guilty when you begin to feel happiness in your life again. If you are ready to experience joy and to laugh again, you will be an example to your child/teen that it is okay for her/him to have fun too. Make new happy memories, by either trying a new activity for yourself, or taking your family to a new place or event. These new activities shared with children help build new family traditions.
  • Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Parents/guardians of grieving children often place a lot of responsibility on themselves to make everything perfect and ensure their children’s happiness. However, we cannot control the many mixed and sometimes difficult feelings that we or our children feel. Letting yourself be human and have your own grief moments gives your child/teen permission to have their feelings too.

From the Staff of the Lighthouse, we wish you and your family joy in the coming warm weather months.

How not to sink into the Winter Blues.

With the holidays behind us comes the challenge of how to not sink into the Winter Blues. The combination of dull cold weather, emotional letdown after the holidays, and a stack of utility and credit card bills can leave any of us wanting to stay in bed and pull the covers over our head. For grieving parents and their children there can often be an added layer of malaise and hopelessness which may leave them feeling exhausted and inclined to withdraw from the world.

So, how can we lessen the impact of the Winter Blues?

Coping with grief and the blues is as individual as the person experiencing it. However there are some things we can (try which may help us feel better. A note of caution. When we try to do everything, we tend to set ourselves up for failure. Instead, consider choosing just a few ideas that appeal to you, and if they are helpful then make a commitment to try to stick with it

  • The following is a list of some proven effective ways to help take care of ourselves and minimize the Blues:
    Realize that some blues are normal this time of year. After the buildup of the holidays, most people tend to feel low in the early months of the year, when everyone is returning to work/school routines, daylight hours are short, and the weather is bleak. Remember that spring will come again.
  • Stay Connected. When we are sinking into the Blues, it is tempting to stop answering the phone, the door, and our emails. However, these are the very ways that the people who care about us try to reach out. It is okay to say ‘No thank you’ to invites for coffee sometimes, but important that we say yes sometimes too.
  • Treat your body like a temple. It is definitely okay to indulge in not-so-healthy snacks sometimes. However, moderation and a healthy diet (including drinking lots of water and taking vitamins regularly) are key to having more energy long-term. Self-discipline can be hard during the winter months when we are spending more time inside, near the kitchen. Sometimes a good plan is to take snack foods and drinks off the grocery list and limit our self to treats only during an outing.
  • Get regular sleep. It is during sleep when the body heals itself, when children’s bodies grow, when the mind sorts through all the information taken in during the previous day. Sleep can be very difficult for grieving children and their parents, who often report difficulties falling and staying asleep. If physical exercise, hot drinks and relaxing before bedtime aren’t working, it may be time to talk to the family doctor for help. A lack of sleep wears down our immune system and makes us prone to illness and depression.
  • Kick yourself outside. Nature and the outdoors are incredible for improving mental and physical wellbeing. Fresh air and oxygen is good for the lungs and mind, and a simple brisk walk can ease body tension, aches and pains. Wooded trails offer a calming connection to the earth, and solace from the mad rush of daily life.
  • Start that activity you have always wanted to try. Whether it is taking up a new craft or joining a woodworking or photography class, learning something new can help the bereaved to re-engage in the world and begin a new chapter of our life. Maybe it starts with browsing on the town Parks and Recreation website to think about future hobbies.
  • Make social plans with friends and/or family and get it on the calendar. Knowing that there is a social activity to look forward to can help prevent us from sinking into isolation and despair.
  • Get to the gym, or the pool, or yoga studio, or a hockey team...whatever physical activity speaks to you. Not only do organized sports provide great physical benefits, they also lessen the sense of isolation. Not up to making idle chit chat? Solitary sports activities at a community centre can help us feel less alone without the pressure to interact on those days when we can’t bear to talk to anyone.
  • Engage in Mindful Meditation. Deep breathing and meditation can be helpful when we are bombarded with information and demands on our time and energy. Several deep breaths a few times a day can help us become centred when we feel torn in a hundred directions.
  • OR… Engage in Mindful Distraction. Bereaved children and their parents often report that a place, object or smell will suddenly remind them of their person who died (grief triggers) and bring them down on a good day. Take some time to think about the activities which help you turn off the difficult thoughts and memories (texting a friend, listening to upbeat music, playing a short video game, playing with a pet) and practice doing these activities when sad memories are changing a good day to bad.

Sometimes the Blues turn into Depression. Some of the signs that a person may be depressed include: difficulty getting adequate sleep for a prolonged period of time; significant weight gain or loss; isolating oneself from all family and friends; frequent or excessive alcohol/drug use. If a person’s behaviours are interfering with day to day functioning, or the person is doing activities which are risky and unsafe, it may be time to tell a close family member and/or health professional to get some extra help to cope. Grieving is a difficult and painful process, and it is normal to need support from others.

Prepared by The Lighthouse for Grieving Children

Grief During the Holidays

For grieving children and their families, the holidays can be an especially difficult time. While hopeful and sentimental songs and stories play on the television, radio stations and at the mall, the thought of going through the holidays without the person who died is often anything but hopeful for the grieving family. It can be very difficult for a grieving parent to carry on with the holiday traditions. They often lack the energy and will that is needed during this busy time of year. For some families, the person who died was the primary income earner, and now the family is left to manage on a tight budget. Where the person who died was a child or teen, the holidays may bring painful reminders of happier celebrations in times past, and lost hopes and dreams for the child’s future. The following are some suggestions for grieving families and the people who care about them, to help get through the holidays a little easier and find ways to remember the special person who died.

How to Support a Grieving Family

How can we support the grieving children, teens and their families in our lives during the holidays?

  • Understand and be sensitive to the fact that grief is a lifelong journey. Whether the death occurred two months or two years ago, the child and their family will grieve the loss throughout their life, and the holidays bring reminders of the loss.
  • Reach out to the family. Death makes us uncomfortable, and so as humans we tend to avoid the bereaved out of concern that we will do and say the wrong thing at the very time they need
  • Don’t expect the grieving family to keep up with past traditions. They may need to let the holidays pass by without fanfare this year. Or they may want to change their holiday activities as part of building a new life.
  • Offer concrete assistance. Ask the grieving parents/guardians what they need. So often they won’t ask for help because they do not want to impose on others.
  • Grieving children and teens need permission and encouragement to continue having fun.
  • Offer to take them on a fun outing over the holidays. The grieving parents/guardians may want to come along. Or maybe they will take a much needed break for some self-care.
  • If you knew the person who died, offer to talk about him/her with the family. Stories you share of the person are gifts you give to help keep their memory alive in the hearts and minds of their grieving family members.

Getting Through the Holidays

(Adapted from The Dougy Center)

As with Grief generally, what is helpful during the holidays is individual for each family. The following are some suggestions for coping throughout the holidays:

  • Accept your limitations. You may not be able or want to do what was done in past years.
  • Lower expectations of yourself and your family. Allow time and space to grieve.
  • Plan ahead where possible. Decide what you can and cannot do, and let your family know ahead of time so that they lower their expectations of you.
  • Prioritise what is Important. Make a list of the tasks you normally do over the holidays (sending cards, baking, decorating), then mark the ones that are most important, and place question
  • Respect everyone’s individual feelings and wishes for the holidays. Just as grief is different for each person so are the wishes and hopes for the holidays for each family member, including the
  • Understand that it is normal for your child/teen to want to celebrate the holidays as they were before the death. Even as they grieve, children and teens need to feel okay about having fun and enjoying some of the traditions from before the death.
  • Emotionally prepare yourself for holiday well-wishers. You may receive cards addressed to the whole family. Strangers and acquaintances will give cheerful greetings of Happy Holidays and
    Merry Christmas, unaware of the pain you feel inside. Brace yourself and know that others do wish you well, that their greetings are not intended as hurtful reminders.
  • Be informed before attending events. Knowing what to expect at events helps to prepare emotionally. Prepare the children for possible questions by some people, awkward avoidance
  • Ask for help if you need it. Often friends and family want to help but don’t know how. People enjoy supporting in concrete ways, such as cleaning, cooking, baking, shopping and running errands, car-pooling for kids activities.
  • Make time for resting. The holidays are often physically and emotionally tiring, and this is compounded when you are grieving. A short nap, walk around the neighbourhood, or other quiet activity can help to regain some energy.
  • Remember to eat well and drink water. Rich foods and alcoholic drinks are often abundantly available during the holidays, and it can be tempting to overindulge. Staying nourished and hydrated helps with physical and emotional energy.
  • Acknowledge the life of the person who died. Often parents do not mention the person who died to protect children and teens from difficult feelings. It can be emotionally and spiritually healthier to speak of the person who died, which gives permission for children and others to talk and remember the person.
  • Consider new traditions. The holidays can never be exactly the same as they were before the person died. Allowing yourself and your children to explore new ways to celebrate the holidays and create new traditions can be in important part healing.

Remembering the Person Who Died

The Following are Some Ways that Parents, children and teens can take time over the Holidays to

Remember their Person who Died :

  • Write a card or letter to the person who died. Although a one-sided conversation, writing to the person allows an opportunity to express thoughts and feelings that otherwise stay bottled
  • Make a memory chain. On strips of decorative paper have children and other family members write special memories or ‘gifts’ they received from the person who died. Loop the strips of paper together to make a chain and hang as part of the holiday decorating.
  • Share a meal of favourite foods of the person who died, or bake their favourite holiday treat.
  • Remembering and cooking the favourite foods of the person can help children and family members to recall memories of the person.
  • Include a special candle for the person who died as part of the holiday decorations. You may want to light the candle throughout the holidays as a symbol of the person’s continued presence in the family, and/or make a special time to light the candle and recall memories of the person’s
  • Hang a special decoration in memory of the person, such as an ornament, wreath or stocking.
  • Buy a gift that the person would have liked and donate it for a family in need
  • Decorate the gravesite. You may use flowers, holiday ornaments, and other decorations.
  • Include the children in the decorating. This can be a way to bring extended family together to take some time out from the holiday rush and focus on remembering the person who died.
  • Create a small area in the home for memorabilia of the person. Photos, stuffed animals, cards, food, and any other items which remind each of the family members of the person can be
  • Take a moment of silence or make a toast to the person before the holiday family meal. This can be a chance for everyone to acknowledge the person together. Family members may want to share special memories or something they are thankful for in having had the person in their lives.

All the best for a safe and pleasant Holiday Season to you and yours, from

The Lighthouse for Grieving Children