It is not always apparent when children are grieving, because unlike adults, they typically grieve silently and do not want to talk about unhappy or sad things in their lives. Though they may not express emotional pain vocally, it is imperative to understand how they grieve in order to help them cope with the grief. Faith Presbyterian Hospice offers many free bereavement programs and support groups aimed at supporting families as they grieve and heal together. With programs including Faith Kids, Camp Faith, and Coffee and Conversation, there is something for every child, regardless of age and experience. Both Faith Kids and Camp Faith bring the entire family together, either for a nighttime grief support group featuring a dinner, discussion and playtime or for an all-day camp focused on dealing with grief. Coffee and Conversation was developed for older teens and young adults. This age group is unique, as they are working to identify where they will go to college or determining what job to take or career path to follow.
“When a close loved one passes, the entire family is impacted, regardless of age,” said Valerie Sanchez, director of bereavement for Faith Presbyterian Hospice. “It is therapeutic when the family can address sad situations and have difficult conversations, even though they may want to avoid them. I have a few helpful tips for guardians working through grief with children.”
Specific advice for assisting children as they cope with grief:
- Recognize that children do grieve, and they grieve based on what they know and understand about dying.
- Be honest about what is happening. The dynamic of the family has changed, and you need to acknowledge as well as explain it.
- Ask them questions: “What do you know? What are you most afraid of?” Most likely they will not ask questions because they are scared of making you upset.
- Tell them what normal grief is like. Explain that it is okay to feel fear, confusion, anger and sadness. Explain anticipatory grief if the loved one is still on hospice.
- Take care of yourself so you can take care of your child.
- Make sure everyone in the child’s world understands that a big change occurred. They are not going to tell their teacher about experiencing frustration because their father is on hospice. Take an active role in educating people in their lives about the situation.
- Be patient. Children are trying to understand death and make sense of grief. They are going to ask some of the same questions again and again. You need to be prepared to let them ask those tough questions repeatedly.
Advice and tips like the ones mentioned above are covered in Faith Presbyterian Hospice’s monthly support groups and annual day camps, encouraging families to confront grief and heal together.
“For younger children, we have Faith Kids, which meets twice a month,” said Sanchez. “The family comes together, and we start the evening with dinner and conversation. Then we split them into groups by age for circle time, where we have conversations about our loved ones. This is a time for questions and processing. Afterward, the kids go to different areas in the bereavement center to express themselves through 45 minutes of interactive play, art, music therapy and more. We even have a ‘Volcano Room’ that is completely padded so that children can roll, jump and stomp to get energy associated with grief out of their system. To conclude, we return to our circles for a breathing exercise and express what we look forward to in the coming days or weeks.”
In addition, Faith Presbyterian Hospice offers Camp Faith, a day camp held twice a year – once right before school starts and again during the holidays. The camp is designed to help kids work through their sorrow with grief-related activities. For example, one activity involves the children writing things they remember about their loved ones and how grief impacts their lives on tiles. Then, they use a hammer and smash the tile into a bunch of small pieces. The tile is a metaphor for the child, and the shattering is representative of how grief impacts them. Next, they put the tile back together, which is a very hard task. However, it shows the kids that despite the impact of grief, the tile has not changed fundamentally. It shows the kids that like the tile, they too can pull the pieces of their broken heart back together. After completing activities with the entire family, everyone breaks for lunch, followed by age-specific circle time and play time. To conclude, all families come back together for a remembrance ceremony during which each participant lights candles and shares memories.
“Our other support group targets older children, those in their late teens and early 20s,” said Sanchez. “It’s called Coffee and Conversation and is designed for children figuring out their identity, direction in life and future goals. It can be overwhelming to start a new job or go to school somewhere far from home when a loved one is on hospice or recently passed. This group offers opportunities for young adults to discuss unique challenges pertaining to people their age. Regardless of age or circumstance, everyone copes with grief differently, and our goal at Faith is to serve as a resource for anyone who needs assistance navigating this difficult time in life.”