On the last track we discussed the first of the five challenges of a grieving child. The first of the five challenges of a grieving child that we discussed was security. We also explored the four methods for reestablishing security. The four methods are actively manage the level of change in the child’s life, actively increase the level of predictability in the child’s life, deal with any of the child’s health concerns, and increase the child’s feelings of control.
On this track we will continue to discuss the five challenges of a grieving child. The second and third challenges are understanding death and mourning death. We will also discuss the Grasping Reality technique and how to play Feelings Football, which is a technique for parents who need to help their children mourn.
#1 Understanding Death
The second of the five challenges of a grieving child is understanding death. Rebecca, age 40, grieved the loss of her 17 year old daughter Haley. Rebecca stated, "I just can’t get it into my head that Haley’s really gone. How can I help Kylie understand death?"
Technique: Grasping a Difficult Reality - 3 Steps
-- Step A - Provide Accurate, Concrete Answers
So that Rebecca could help her daughter Kylie understand death, I shared with her the "Grasping a Difficult Reality" technique. I stated, "First, provide accurate, concrete answers to any questions Kylie might ask. Kylie might ask the same question repeatedly and in deeper and more significant ways as she gets older."
Do you agree that educating children about death should be done when the child displays a willingness to learn?
-- Step B - Facing the Reality of Death
In addition to providing answers, the second part of the "Grasping a Difficult Reality" technique is facing the reality of death. I have found that children and adults alike may benefit from this part of the "Grasping a Difficult Reality" technique. For example, Karen already had an adult’s understanding of death, but had not faced the reality of her daughter Haley’s death herself.
Karen stated, "I find myself making mental notes about what to talk to her about when she gets home. I expect her home any minute and if I pass a cute sweater in the store I want to buy it for her. I know in my head she’s gone. I just don’t know it in my heart."
-- Step C - Avoid Distracting her from her Grief by Activities
As you are already aware, this increasing sense of reality is not a process which can be sped up. To Rebecca, I stated, "All you can do is help Kylie face the reality of death as it begins to sink in. Help Kylie verbalize her increasing understanding of what happened and why. Using Haley’s name will help increase Kylie’s grasp of reality as well. Avoid distracting her from her grief by activities. This will only postpone her grief."
In a later session, Rebecca stated, "While answering Kylie’s questions about death and helping her face the reality of Haley’s death, I seem to have begun to accept that Haley is really gone."
Think of your Rebecca and Kylie. Could their grief become more bearable if they work together to gain an understanding of death?
#2 Mourning Death
In addition to security and understanding death, the third of the five challenges of a grieving child is mourning death. As you have probably experienced, parents sometimes feel powerless watching their children mourn. I have found that some parents become unsure of what to say or do.
For example, Gary, age 34, became a single father when his wife, Kate, died from an infectious disease. Gary stated, "Joey’s only 9 years old. How can a kid that age deal with losing his mom? And how can I help him? I feel lost in despair when Joey cries about losing Kate. Because I don’t know how to help him, he’s been spending a lot of time at Kate’s parents house."
Act as an ‘Emotional Coach.’
I have found that a good method for parents to help grieving children mourn is by acting as an ‘emotional coach.’ I stated to Gary, "Talking alone is not enough. When you taught Joey to hit a baseball, did you simply talk him through it?" Gary stated, "Well, no. I showed him, and helped him hold the bat." I further stated, "The same is true for grief and mourning. Though it’s important to talk to Joey about feelings, talking is not enough."
Technique: Feelings Football - 3 Steps
So that Gary could help Joey through mourning his mother’s death, I shared with Gary the "Feelings Football" technique.
-- Step A - First, Gary and Joey began a game of catch with a football.
-- Step B - Second, each time Gary or Joey threw the football, he had to name a feeling that someone might feel if a person they loved died. Because Joey was stating feelings other kids might experience, he was able to express himself without any embarrassment.
-- Step C - In addition to begin a game of catch and name a feeling, the third step in the "Feelings Football" technique is to regulate the pass based on the intensity of the emotion. For example, Gary stated, "Joey shouted "sad" and threw that football high into the air. I said "jealous" and threw the ball pretty low to the ground."
Because Joey already enjoyed football, it was easy for Gary to integrate emotional coaching using football. If the child you are counseling enjoys other activities, recreate the "Feelings Football" technique around that activity. For example, another parent of a grieving child I treated stated that her daughter enjoyed baking. The parent and child made cookies together and used icing to create faces expressing various emotions.
Can you think of a way to recreate this technique to help a child mourn death? If you have found the information on this track applicable to a client you are treating, consider playing this track or parts of it in your next session.
On this track we have discussed the second and third of the five challenges of a grieving child. They are understanding death and mourning death. We also discussed the Grasping Reality technique and how to play Feelings Football.
On the next track we will continue to discuss the last two of the five challenges of a grieving child. The fourth and fifth challenges we will discuss are staying connected and resuming childhood.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Grolnick, W. S., Schonfeld, D. J., Schreiber, M., Cohen, J., Cole, V., Jaycox, L., Lochman, J., Pfefferbaum, B., Ruggiero, K., Wells, K., Wong, M., & Zatzick, D. (2018). Improving adjustment and resilience in children following a disaster: Addressing research challenges. American Psychologist, 73(3), 215–229.
Review of Life & loss: A guide to help grieving children (2000). [Review of the book Life & loss: A guide to help grieving children (2nd ed.), by L. Goldman]. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 21(3), 141.
Schonfeld, D. J., & Demaria, T. P. (2018). The role of school psychologists in the support of grieving children. School Psychology Quarterly, 33(3), 361–362.
Online Continuing Education
What are the second and third of the five challenges of a grieving child?
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