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When loss is even more: Helping children cope with grief

It can be challenging for any parent, carer or teacher to find ways to support a child or young person when they experience loss and grief around the death of someone special or important in their lives. When supporting children or a young person who has additional needs, this involves another layer of challenges. These challenges will require time and patience to help the child or young person to understand the permanence of death and also perhaps their longing for things to return to the same as they were before.

All children and young people have a right to hear the truth and to be given the opportunity to express their feelings and emotions openly and honestly. Encourage them to talk about their feelings as it is part of their healing process. Children and young people with additional needs may require more support to help them understand their loss and grief whilst helping them express how they feel. 

Using and developing ‘emotional literacy’ (the ability to recognise, understand, handle and appropriately express emotions) will help parents, carers or teachers support a child or young person with additional needs.

How to help children develop emotional literacy

The following are some helpful hints to develop this skill: 

  • Accept a child or young person’s feelings and their emotional responses. Try not to negate how they are feeling or be negative towards their emotions.
  • Label their emotions with them. This will help them feel understood and that it’s OK to feel like that.
  • Encourage them to talk about their feelings and to try to create an environment where they feel it is safe to talk openly.
  • Help them to recognise any signs or signals from other people around them and how that individual may be feeling. Asking them open questions and helping them to step into the shoes of another person can also help. Remember, everyone reacts to loss differently - there is no right or wrong way.
  • Teaching them or modelling alternative ways of expressing their frustrations will empower them to feel that they have choices in terms of how they behave and how they express their emotions at different times.

Their sense of loss, absence and finality may impact on them and create some changes in their lives that they and those around them had not anticipated nor expected.

In the words of Maria V. Snyder, "Everyone grieves in different ways. For some, it could take longer or shorter. I do know it never disappears. An ember still smoulders inside me. Most days I don’t notice it, out of the blue, it will flare to life."

If a parent or carer knows that a close relative’s death is expected and they are an important person in a child or young person’s life, it is helpful to explain and prepare children in advance. This is especially important if there are hospital or hospice visits to be made. Being honest about what is happening to the loved one is also important for them to hear, as there may be changes that they will see and not completely understand.

When explaining and communicating with a child or young person with additional needs, it can be helpful to introduce some visuals to help explain feelings and emotions. It is often wrongly assumed that they won’t understand or that they need to be protected from knowing about death, dying or loss.

Creating or accessing some simple visuals to explain the five stages of loss and grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, for example using emojis for each stage accompanied with words that match each emotion can be powerful. It may also help a child or young person identify and recognise their own feelings and emotions at different times. Using analogies along with visuals can explain how our emotions can make us feel, for example as if we are on a rollercoaster or a two-way street.

Perhaps accessing Lois Tonkin’s ‘Circle Model’ or as is often referred to as the ‘Fried Egg Model’ is another helpful resource to demonstrate how loss stays the same size but we grow around our loss and absorb it over time.

There are also many simple ways of explaining living and dying using nature. This could involve taking some pictures of examples then creating some visuals that explain the permanence of death and dying in a gentle way.

Children and young people don’t need to be protected from their emotions and feelings, but they do need to be supported to find ways that they can express them.

Help them understand that loss and grief is a normal process - and one that everyone will experience in their lifetime. As a parent or carer, be honest and open about your own feelings and then role-model that it’s OK to feel sad or upset or to need some time and space on your own. 

Another key area that will support children and young people with additional needs when they are mourning is ‘remembering’. Memories, events or simply talking about the person will support them and help to ensure that emotional connections are still there and that they are important.

The creation of a memory box containing keepsakes, photographs and items chosen by the child or young person, is a practical way of offering a place to visit and remember. The contents could also be connected to the senses or be as simple as keeping an item of clothing that they can wrap themselves in.

Colin Murray Parkes said, "The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment."It is so important, therefore, to be mindful that ‘loss is even more’ when supporting the needs of bereaved children and young people with additional needs. It will require some time, thought, patience, creativity and preparations to be able to offer the comfort and support that they need.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London, W4

Written by Julia Dryburgh

London, W4

Julia Dryburgh MBACP is a loss and grief counsellor, a volunteer with CRUSE Bereavement Care and a part-time counsellor in an SEN School and College in West London

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