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Healing a Child's Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers

Healing a Child's Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends and Caregivers

by Alan D. Wolfelt

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A compassionate resource for friends, parents, relatives, teachers, volunteers, and caregivers, this series offers suggestions to help the grieving cope with the loss of a loved one. Often people do not know what to say—or what not to say—to someone they know who is mourning; this series teaches that the most important thing a person can do is


A compassionate resource for friends, parents, relatives, teachers, volunteers, and caregivers, this series offers suggestions to help the grieving cope with the loss of a loved one. Often people do not know what to say—or what not to say—to someone they know who is mourning; this series teaches that the most important thing a person can do is listen, have compassion, be there for support, and do something helpful. This volume addresses what to expect from grieving young people, and how to provide safe outlets for children to express emotion. Included in each book are tested, sensitive ideas for "carpe diem” actions that people can take right this minute—while still remaining supportive and honoring the mourner’s loss.

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Healing a Grieving Heart Series
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Healing a Child's Grieving Heart

100 Practical Ideas for Families, Friends & Caregivers

By Alan D. Wolfelt

Center for Loss and Life Transition

Copyright © 2001 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph. D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-879651-28-9



Understand the difference between grief and mourning.

• Grief is the constellation of internal thoughts and feelings we experience when someone loved dies.

• Mourning is the outward expression of our grief. Mourning is necessary for healing to take place.

• I often refer to children as "forgotten mourners." Why? Because though all children grieve when someone loved dies, we (as a society, as families and often as individuals) rarely encourage them to mourn.

• You can help the grieving child you love by encouraging her to mourn. You can be the person she feels "safe" to mourn in the presence of.

Carpe Diem

Think about your own experiences with grief. Did you mourn? If so, what ways of mourning were helpful to you?


Observe that kids mourn more through behaviors than words.

• Often grieving children don't talk and talk about their feelings. Instead, they act them out.

• For example, the child may act mopey and lethargic but may not have the words to pinpoint how he's feeling or why, specifically, he's feeling that way.

• Watch for mourning behaviors in kids. A child who is feeling confused might get easily upset. A child who is angry about the death might misbehave or pick fights with other kids.

• Children also mourn through their play. Watch for their feelings to come out in the ways they pretend, relate to other kids, physically move, create artwork, etc.

Carpe Diem

Spend some time simply observing the grieving child today. What can you learn by watching him just "be"?



Need 1. Acknowledge the reality of the death.

• The child must gently confront the reality that someone she loved is dead and will never physically be present to her again.

• Children tend to accept the reality of a death in "doses." That is, they let in just a little of the pain at a time then return to their play or other distractions. This "dosing" of grief is not only normal but necessary, for it makes the early days of grief bearable.

• Help the child understand what "dead" physically means. Explain that the body can no longer think, feel, hear, breathe, etc. and will never be "alive" again.

• Whether the death was sudden or anticipated, the child may take years to fully integrate the reality of the loss. As she gets older and matures developmentally, the death will take on new layers of meaning and greater depth.

Carpe Diem

Today, talk about the physical reality of the death. Make sure the child understands how and why the person died.



Need 2. Feel the pain of the loss.

• Like all mourners, children need to embrace the pain of the loss. Fortunately, most children haven't yet learned how to repress or deny their feelings. If they're sad, they generally allow themselves to be sad.

• You can help by encouraging the child to talk about his painful thoughts and feelings and by being a nonjudgemental listener.

• You can also model your own grief feelings. If you're sad, express your sadness in the child's presence.

• Children will naturally "dose" their pain. Support this child as he allows his pain in, little by little.

Carpe Diem

The next time the child cries, resist the natural urge to encourage him to stop crying. Instead, hold him gently and let him cry as long and hard (and as often) as he wants to.



Need 3. Remember the person who died.

• When someone loved dies, they live on in us through memory.

• Grieving children need to actively remember the person who died and help commemorate the life that was lived.

• Never try to take away a child's memories in a misguided attempt to save her from pain. It's good for the child to continue to look at photos or videotapes of the person who died. It's good for her to share stories of the person's life and to hear other people talk about the person who died, too.

• Remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.

Carpe Diem

Invite the child to tell you about a memory of the person who died. Or ask the child to show you a snapshot of the person who died then tell you what was going on when the picture was taken.



Need 4. Develop a new self-identity.

• Part of the child's self-identity was formed by the relationship he had with the person who died.

• Maybe he had a father and now he doesn't. Or maybe he was a big brother and now his younger sibling has died. How has the child's sense of who he is changed as a result of this death?

• No one can "fill in" for the person who died. Don't try to find a substitute father/best friend/grandparent/etc. for the child, at least not in the early months after the death. Supportive relationships — yes. Replacements — no!

• Sometimes grieving children are encouraged to take on roles and tasks that belonged to the person who died, yet forcing children to take on adult responsibilities will only hinder their healing process and unfairly steal their childhood from them.

Carpe Diem

Ask the child to draw two pictures: one of his life before the death and one of his life after the death. Then talk with him about the differences depicted in the pictures.



Need 5. Search for meaning.

• When someone loved dies, we naturally question the meaning and purpose of life.

• Children tend to do this very simply through questions such as, "Why do people die?" and "What happens to people after they die?" and "Can Grandma go bowling in heaven?"

• Grieving kids will only feel free to ask these questions of adults whom they trust. Also be on the watch for the child's search for meaning in her play.

• Don't try to have answers to all the child's questions about the meaning of life. It's OK — even desirable — to admit that you struggle with the same issues.

Carpe Diem

Share your beliefs about life and death and spirituality with the child without pressuring the child to believe what you believe.



Need 6. Receive ongoing support from caring adults.

• Grief is a process — not an event. Children, like adults, will grieve long after the person has died.

• The grieving child needs your compassionate support and presence not only in the days and weeks following the death, but in the months and years to come.

• As they grow and mature developmentally, children will naturally grieve the death on new and ever deeper levels. If you can help the grieving child mourn as the need arises (even years after the death), you will be helping her grow into a healthy, loving adult.

Carpe Diem

Create a plan to help this child throughout the next year. If you need to, mark regular dates to contact and spend time with her in your daily planner. Don't forget to make note of important dates, such as the child's birthday and the anniversary of the death.


Include the child in planning and carrying out the funeral.

• Attending the funeral of someone loved is more than a privilege, it is a right. And anyone who loved the person who died should be encouraged to attend — even children.

• Children often don't know what to expect from a funeral. You can help by explaining what will happen before, during and after the ceremony. Let the child's questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion.

• Grieving kids often feel like their feelings "matter" when they can share a favorite memory or read a special poem as part of the funeral. Shyer children can participate by lighting a candle or placing something special (a memento, photo or drawing, for example) in or on the casket.

Carpe Diem

If the funeral has already taken place, talk to the child about his experience with the ceremony. Help answer lingering questions and discuss ongoing ways for him to honor the person who died.


Help the child choose a keepsake.

• Following a death, survivors are often faced with the task of sorting through and disposing of the belongings of the person who died. Children should be included in this process when possible.

• Ask the grieving child if she would like to keep anything that belonged to the person who died. If the person who died was especially significant in her young life, you may want to box up other items and save them for appropriate times later in the child's life.

• Sometimes keepsakes can be stored in a "memory box" (see Idea 61) created especially for the child.

Carpe Diem

Today, talk to the child about keepsakes. If she has already selected one, ask her about its significance. If she hasn't, help her make a plan for choosing and procuring one.


Give the child permission to find comfort in "linking objects."

• "Linking objects" are simply items that belonged to the person who died in which the child takes comfort. They offer him a physical "link" to the person who died.

• Embrace the child's need to carry around or hold such linking objects. They help him feel closer to the person who died and provide some sense of safety and security.

• You may want to give the child a special linking object — maybe something he can wear like an article of clothing or a piece of costume jewelry.

Carpe Diem

Does this child rely on a linking object right now? If so, talk to him about its significance. Affirm his need to have and hold this object.


Consider the child's relationship to the person who died.

• Each child's response to a death depends largely upon the relationship she had with the person who died.

• For example, children will naturally grieve differently the deaths of a parent, a classmate and a grandparent.

• The closer the child felt to the person who died, the more difficult her grief is likely to be. Ambivalent or conflicted relationships can also complicate grief.

Carpe Diem

Think about the child's relationship with the person who died — from her point of view. Set aside your own thoughts and feelings and enter her world as you consider this point.


If a child's parent has died, consider this:

• The parent-child bond may be the strongest and most significant in life. When this bond is severed by death, the grieving child needs ample love and support.

• Perhaps the most important influence on the child's grief journey will be the response of the surviving parent or other important adults in the child's life. While they cannot ignore their own grief and mourning, they must focus as much as possible on helping the child mourn.

• For the child, this death often results in many losses in addition to the loss of the parent, such as loss of financial stability or loss of a home and neighborhood friends if the family has to move.

Carpe Diem

If the child's parent has died, help him capture his memories. Ask him to tell you about the parent then, with his permission, help him write down his thoughts and feelings. He will treasure this record later in life.


If a child's sibling has died, consider this:

• The death of a sibling is often among the most traumatic events in a child's life. Siblings' normal feelings for one another include not only love but anger, jealousy and other ambivalent emotions.

• When a sibling dies, the surviving kids sometimes feel:

* - guilt (because they may have wished the sibling were gone at one time or another).

* - relief (because now they don't have to share or vie for attention).

* - fear (because now they know they could die, too).

* - confusion (because they're unsure if they're still a brother or sister).

• All of these feelings are normal. You can help by listening or observing nonjudgmentally as the child expresses them.

Carpe Diem

If the child's sibling has died, help him write a poem in the sibling's honor. Have him write the sibling's name vertically on a piece of a paper, then begin each line of his poem with the corresponding letter.


Excerpted from Healing a Child's Grieving Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt. Copyright © 2001 Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph. D.. Excerpted by permission of Center for Loss and Life Transition.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD, is an internationally known teacher, a grief counselor, and the author of The Journey Through Grief and The Understanding Your Grief Journal. He is director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and faculty member at the University of Colorado Medical School’s department of family medicine. He is the “Children and Grief” columnist for Bereavement magazine and has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, and NBC’s Today. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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