How can you help a child who is grieving the loss of someone they love?
Death is more than the loss of the loved one’s physical presence.
There are secondary losses a child experiences:
Change or loss in sense of self: A child’s self-confidence, personality, understanding of physical
health and even their role in their family is impacted by the death of
someone close to them.
Loss of their sense of security: Often their emotional and physical safety is compromised. Other changes
from the loss like financial security and family restructuring can add
to the confusion.
Loss of meaning in their life: They may experience a shift in their goals and dreams. They may question
their faith or even their own desire to keep living without their loved one.
Children are often the “forgotten grievers” as those around
them assume they are “handling it well” because they have
returned to their normal routine. In actuality, many children hold back
their grief expression to spare those grieving around them additional
pain. Children hold their breath until “normal’ life can begin
in a family again. The struggle is to find a “new normal”
after the loss.
At Mary Washington Hospice Support Care, we have three programs that provide
support for grieving children and their families at no cost to them:
Family Expressions; a support group for the family as a whole as they learn to adapt to their
new life without their lost loved one.
Kids Helping Kids and Teens Helping Teens; in-school grief clubs for surrounding county schools.
Camp Rainbow; an annual weekend day camp for children who are grieving the loss of
a significant loved one.
All Mary Washington Hospice Support Care programs are provided at no cost
and pre-registration is required. And, all programs are planned with objectives
to support the goals of developing a basic understanding of death and
dying, expressing thoughts and feelings appropriately, normalizing feelings
of loss and grief, learning ways to cope, and creating relationships with
others who are experiencing a loss.
Of all these programs, Camp Rainbow is especially close to my heart because
of the profound impact it has on children in such a short period of time.
I’ll give you an example: Charlie woke up one morning to the news
that his mother had committed suicide. When he arrived at Camp Rainbow,
he wanted little to do with the activities, especially the ones that asked
him to speak of his tragedy. He was linked with a Big Buddy (adult counselor)
who was able to accompany him throughout the weekend one-on-one. Charlie’s
Big Buddy began to see him unwind a little more after each activity from
music therapy, where children gathered to play exotic instruments - to
art therapy, where he learned how he could express even the ugliest feelings
During one of the last art projects, we saw Charlie truly able to express
the hurt that was inside him and his hope for the future. We asked the
Campers to each draw a picture of himself/herself and how they felt when
they found out their loved one died. The picture was a river map, representing
their grief journey. At the head of the river, Charlie drew his mother
with a lot of dark clouds over her and a tree with bare branches. Along
the river, he drew himself crying and angry while he was at school and
playing with friends. At the end of his river journey, he drew himself
with a big smile on his face under a large tree with leaves the color
of the rainbow. He wrote that he was able to see his bright future since
coming to Camp Rainbow and that all the leaves represented the other children
who feel the same way he does.
Camp Rainbow is an opportunity for children who are grieving to be with
other children who are just like them. Children do not often share their
loss with their peers as they are afraid that they will be treated differently.
At Camp Rainbow, we talk about the painful parts and give the children
tools to reach towards healing. Our Camp Rainbow Big Buddies accompany
them as they process their loss and wind up experiencing some healing
of their own.
People ask me all the time how I can do this work every day. My answer
is that I see children get better every day and that wakes me up in the
morning with a hopeful outlook. Children are resilient and they naturally
want to move forward and live their lives. Many of these children understand
how precious life can really be and have to find a “new normal”
without their loved one. Camp Rainbow and our other programs just help
them along and keep them from feeling lonely in the process.
For more information about Hospice Support Care, please contact Tara Hoit,
Program and Resource Development Liaison. 540-741-1874 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Guest contributor Tara Hoit has a rich background of program and resource
development in non-profits. She came to Mary Washington Hospice from Hospice
Support Care where she was the Children’s Bereavement Coordinator;
she was responsible for developing bereavement programs for children and
their families in the Fredericksburg community. Tara and her husband Jeremy
live in Stafford where they are busy raising two children. Tara is a master
gardener and also performs with a professional improvisational acting
troupe in Washington D.C.