At The Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families, our peer support groups begin the same way every time. Each person is invited to say their name, age, who died in their life, and how that person died. I’m Jana, I’m 43, when I was 15 my grandmother was hit and killed by a subway train and we never found out if it was an accident, suicide, or if someone pushed her. I’m Caden, I’m 7, my dad died of cancer. I’m Amber, I’m 12, my brother hung himself. I’m Sadie, I’m 4, and my mommy died because she was really sick. In the everyday world, when we tell people someone in our life has died, the conversation usually takes an awkward turn. Even young children quickly learn to keep grief to themselves because it makes other people uncomfortable. As practitioners we can work to change this habitual silencing of grief.
One way to advocate for this is to create an environment of acceptance rather than sympathy. Almost every child I’ve met in my work is attuned to what they call the “You poor thing” tone of voice. Grieving people continually brace for gasps, platitudes, and people telling them how they should and shouldn’t feel. When met with these reactions and expectations, grievers can internalize them as evidence there is something wrong with them and how they are grieving. We can support clients to dismantle these beliefs and recognize they have a right to feel and express their grief. We can also help them identify what they need - and don’t need - from from family, friends, and school personnel.
With grieving children and teens, it’s vital to demonstrate we are not afraid of their stories and can withstand the intensity of emotions, thoughts, physical reactions, and questions they carry. To do this effectively, it’s important to connect with our own grief experiences. By exploring these, we can identify our often unspoken assumptions and anxiety about grief. We will be better advocates if we approach these stories with curiosity rather than fear and reactivity rooted in our unexamined grief.
Another area where we can advocate for children and teens is encouraging their adults to be honest about the death. When adults try to protect children from the truth, they fill in the gaps with guesses that can lead to confusion, pain, guilt, and shame. We can work with adults to help them find the right words to say. In general, it’s good to use clear, concrete language (Daddy’s heart stopped working, Mommy took too many pills) and let children’s questions guide what else to share. If children and teens trust they can ask questions and receive truthful responses, they are more likely to reach out to the adults in their lives for support.
Along with honesty, we also need to advocate for clients to be able to grieve in their own way. Grievers tend to be hard on themselves, whether for crying, not crying, being strong, being a mess, thinking about the person, or not thinking about the person. Grief is as unique as we are and even in the same family, we may grieve very differently. It’s helpful to let children and adults know there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but the belief that there is a right way can lead to misunderstandings and disappointment. As a therapist, you can help families to acknowledge, celebrate, and supporting each other’s individual ways of expressing grief.
As we delve into our personal grief experiences to uncover personal assumptions about how people should and shouldn’t grieve, we can engage in a similar process using a societal lens, taking into account how culture and systemic inequities influence how grief is defined and valued. Consider what might happen if we grappled with these questions each time a client entered our office: Who gets permission to grieve in our society and who doesn’t? Who is seen as grieving well/badly? Who gets access to resources and support? Who has the resources to care for themselves and others when someone has died? These questions don’t have simple answers, but there is power in keeping them close as we work with and advocate for those in grief.
Jana DeCristofaro, LCSW is the Volunteer and Children's Grief Services Coordinator at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Oregon, where she coordinates bereavement groups for children, teens, and young adults. Jana has presented at the National Alliance for Grieving Children and the Association for Death Education and Counseling conferences and is the co-author of a number of chapters. Jana is also the host and content manager of Dear Dougy, The Dougy Center's podcast. She’s also a speaker at ORCA’s upcoming Professional Development Event, “Death, Dying & Grief.”