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How children process grief and how to support them - Cremation Society of New Hampshire

How children process grief and how to support them

For many children, a favorite singer, athlete, actor, writer, etc. helps shape their personalities. The death of a favorite celebrity may be the first death a child experiences as reality and not just  as a concept. A celebrity’s death may also trigger a child’s past grief of losing a family member, pet or friend. Many of us don’t consider not wonder how children process grief until a death occurs. This makes is harder to help them in the moment. 

“For children who haven’t yet experienced death in their personal lives, the death of a favorite celebrity can mimic that ‘first death’ experience,” says Dr. Katy Hopkins, a psychologist with Norton Children’s Medical Group. “A child may become overly concerned about safety for their loved ones, including parents, siblings and friends.”

Shared grief over a celebrity dying is not new. Millions of mourners visited Elvis Presley’s gravesite in Graceland. The tears for performers like Prince, David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Monroe and Jerry Garcia as well as popular athletes like Kobe Bryant could create a new ocean. But why do we grieve for people we hardly know?

“These connections are not just about how much we love, appreciate and respect these people, but sometimes because they remind us of, well, us. This can be as specific as their connection to a moment in our past, or as general as the fact that they are about our age or have something else in common to us,” writes Litsa Williams in a piece for the site What’s My Grief.

Reasons why we feel grief when a celebrity dies

  • Someone we know who died was a big fan
  • We connect to the reason for the celebrity’s death
  • The celebrity’s work helps us get through the day
  • It feels like losing a piece of our past
  • Their output of new work is over

How do we talk to children about death?

Death can be a challenging concept for a child to fully understand, so questions they ask may be difficult to answer. Here are things to keep in mind when talking to children about death.

  • Be honest and open, and try not to oversimplify what has happened.
  • Express sympathy, and let them know you also feel the loss. Stress that things will take time to go back to normal.
  • Be supportive of the grieving process, as we all grieve in different ways and have our own coping mechanisms. Give space as needed.

Age and maturity level  dictate how to talk about death. Young kids often take things literally, so consider avoiding phrases like “went to sleep”. Children typically take everything said as truth, so it’s best to explain that someone has died so they can begin to accept it.

Slightly older children often have more questions. You may need to share some details of the death. Clear explanations are best. For example, if someone died from cancer, you may want to explain in simple terms how sometimes cancer patients do not get better from treatment, and sometimes they do.

After age 10, children become more logical and may realize that death affects them, too. For example, if a child of this age hears of a fatal accident, they will think about how they, too, could die in a car accident. It’s important to deal with their emotions, whether they are fear or grief. Children may need reassurance they are safe and being provided with support and comfort during the grieving process.

Regardless of the child’s age, provide them with the level of information about death that they can comprehend. Each child will handle death differently, so it’s important to do whatever it takes to bring comfort and understanding.

How to support a grieving child

During the time when a child is grieving, you may need help supporting them through grief. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Offer children the opportunity to express feelings or to tell their story. Let them be the teachers of their experience with grief.
  • Help children understand loss and death.
  • Encourage children to ask questions.
  • Allow children to grieve at their pace; Grief has no timeline.
  • Be honest; half-truths don’t help healing.
  • Give children the attention and support they require. Share activities to help them cope.

While you’re helping a child through the grief process, remember that it’s OK for you to grieve too.

Friends of Aine helps children through grief

New Hampshire has one ongoing, full-time peer-to-peer organization for children who are grieving. Because of the pandemic, it currently offers services remotely.

Still, Christine Phillips,co-founder of the nonprofit Friends of Aine, is hopeful about the future.

“There’s a spirit of collaboration and it’s growing and brilliant. More people are demonstrating community first, individual second,” she said. “Our model is a peer-to-peer support group. There’s nothing better than having kids interacting with one another. Getting these kids together helps them understand they’re not alone.”

In the meetings, everyone (including parents and guardians) come together to greet each other as a group, then split off by ages with volunteer facilitators. The goal is three children to one facilitator. Facilitators brainstorm ideas for activities, which filter through the group’s clinician, Cammiejean Byrd. Crafts and playtime are used to facilitate conversations about grieving.

“Our success rate is based on a child feeling like they don’t need to come back, though the door is always open,” Christine said.

The Good Grief program is designed to last one academic year, though some children return for a second time the following year or later. This is because as  children develop, they might relive their grieving and need additional support.

The name Friends of Aine comes from Aine, the daughter of Christine and her husband, David, who passed away unexpectedly at age 8. The whole family, including their other daughter, Bella, who was 5 at the time, needed support for their grief. They found it via Merrimack’s Home Health and Hospice Care’s Good Grief program.

“We loved it. We loved the people. We decided we wanted to do something positive in memory of Aine. She liked to look out for other kids. She was our model. We were able to start a 501c3 to help Good Grief expand,” Christine said. “Over time, the need grew more than Home Health and Hospice Care could take on. Their core mission is hospice. So they gifted us the program.”

Christine is looking forward to the day when Good Grief can get together again in person.

“To be with kids who understand how it feels is probably the biggest takeaway for a lot of these children, knowing you can sit in a room together, and they say, ‘Yeah, I know exactly how you feel.’”


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