Helping Children Grieve: Expressing Emotions, Affirming the Universal

June 14, 2010

It is a Tuesday evening in January, 2010. The room is abuzz with the energy of 12 children, ages 7-9, who show up in this large room most weeks from 6-8 pm to play and talk and have a snack. These children have something in common that does not meet the eye. Their young lives have been affected by loss – the death of a parent or other caregiver, the absence of a parent due to divorce, abandonment or addiction, homelessness, the loss of a sense of safety through witnessing violence or experiencing abuse or neglect. You wouldn’t notice it at first. It is not often that any of us wear grief on our faces – at least not in an immediately recognizable form. And the children in this group have already learned to mask their feelings, knowing from past experience that expressing anger or fear or sadness often comes to no good and may make matters worse.

Some of Council for Relationships’ interns (those who participate in our Community Partnership Initiative) volunteer as group counselors at this center, along with the experienced social worker who leads the group. Tonight they come prepared with an activity.

Everyone take a paper plate and use the colored markers to draw a face on the plate. Draw it so it shows how you are feeling today. This is your feeling mask.

The children transform their paper plates into masks, finding colors and shapes that speak to them of happiness, sadness, frustration, sorrow. The counselors help the children cut out holes in the mask so they can see out, and speak. They tie the masks around the children’s heads with string.

Find someone and ask about his mask. Find out how the person feels today and why. Tell someone what your mask says about your feelings.

There is giggling and excitement as the children move around the room wearing their masks. The group counselors help the children talk about their feelings.

Tonight, many children are focused on news of the earthquake in Haiti. They have heard about it on TV and in school and from the chatter of adults in their world.

I’m feeling sad because of the children in Haiti who lost their homes in the earthquake,” says one little boy.

That would be horrible to have an earthquake wreck my home,” says another.

I felt scared when we had to stay in the shelter,” says a girl in the group. “I was happy when we moved here.

Many of the children in the group live in transitional housing provided by Project H.O.M.E. Their path into homelessness may have involved their parent’s loss of a job or relationship, a disaster such as a house fire, the descent of a parent into addiction or physical or mental illness, or the death of a caregiver or breadwinner due to violence. They have experienced evictions, lived in substandard housing, stayed in shelters and lived on the street. They have a keen idea of what the children in Haiti are experiencing.

I want to write a letter to the children in Haiti and let them know they can come and stay at my house if they don’t have a home anymore,” says one boy.

The group counselors pass out paper and pencils and some of the children get straight to work. They know just what to say. Saying it offers a measure of self-healing.

Loss can impact a child at any age and may come as a consequence of death, divorce, moving, natural disaster or other traumatic experience. Parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy and counselors in a position to support the child who is grieving often ask “what can I do to help?”

The experience of our interns through the CFR Community Partnership with Project H.O.M.E. illustrates two important aspects of grieving, and contains important lessons for all of us about fostering the mourning process in children.

1. Children need opportunities to express their emotions to a safe and receptive audience. 
In the wake of a major loss, and sometimes long afterward, children struggle to make sense of their circumstances, to understand what has happened, to come to terms with its immutability or finality, and to process the complex feelings that arise. The child’s developmental stage will impact this process, as will the family environment. Children often delay the process of grieving until they feel that the adults in their life, who are most likely grieving the same loss, have found their own equilibrium. The child senses that their parent is unable to attend to their emotional needs because of being overwhelmed by their own, and so delays grieving. This may be expressed as a sense of unfeeling, or numbness about the loss. Or it may be expressed in acting out behavior, such as bed-wetting, fighting at school or with siblings, or not following directions at home or school. Either way, the child’s true feelings are masked.

Children can be helped to express their feelings through family, individual and group counseling for grief. In family therapy, parents find a pathway through their own grief with the support of a peer group or counselor, and can begin to offer support to their grieving child. Developmentally, elementary and preschool children tend to express their feelings and work through complex experiences through play. In the example of the feeling mask activity described above, children are encouraged to be aware of what they feel, find words and facial images to express what they feel and then find language to tell the story of their emotions to an interested listener. This process of awareness, naming, story-telling and being heard, repeated over and over in new ways and new situations, enables the child to embrace the experience, work it through, and integrate it into their developing sense of self. It is one of the building blocks of resilience.

2. Children find comfort through comforting others who are suffering, tapping into the universality of loss. 
As children work to make sense of loss in their own lives, they become sensitive to the losses of others and to the power of human relationships to comfort. In the story above, children in the grief group who had personally experienced the loss of their homes were keenly attuned to what the children impacted by the earthquake in Haiti were feeling and also what they would find comforting. By taking action to write to the children in Haiti, offering their sympathy and offering a place to stay, the children in the grief group were able to enact their own experience of needing and receiving help to find a home. This enactment through letter-writing, however brief, was a profound expression of two important and universal truths in the human experience: 1) we all suffer loss and 2) we all have the ability to offer comfort. The fact that this enactment took place in the presence of caring witnesses – the group counselors-meant that the children in the grief group were reworking their own losses and practicing their own resilience in a safe and receptive place. They, too, were comforted.

Dr. Sara Corse is the Clinical Director of Council for Relationships’ University City office and our Community Partnership Initiative. She is also the author of “Cradled All the While: The Unexpected Gifts of a Mother’s Death.” Dr. Corse can be reached at 215-382-6680 x3117.