Recently, Paul Salerno, the social worker at University School Milwaukee, conducted a session for parents about helping children deal with grief and loss. Seeing the news about the loss in neighboring community Whitefish Bay, I thought parents there might appreciate some of his insights and recommendations.
First, it’s important to recognize that the way a child responds is, in part, dependent on their developmental stage. Second, each individual has their own timetable. So, while you’re thinking they should be “over it,” your child may still be grieving.
Speaking of “getting over it,” Paul said about a dozen times, “You don’t get over loss; you get through it.”
Among nine to 12 year olds, loss and grief is especially crushing and debilitating. They are vulnerable to a loss because they have hit the stage where they truly understand permanance.
The Whitefish Bay student was 15, so most of children responding to this loss are probably teenagers. On the one hand, Paul said, they will be in denial and not want to think about it, reflecting the self-absorption that characterizes the teenager.
On the other hand, teens have a magnetic need to connect, so they will be connecting to the grief of others, even those they don’t know well. This is, at best, confusing for those around the teen, and at worst, the cause of anger, jealousy and frustration. “Hey,” some kids will say, “Why are you sad? You didn’t know her THAT well.”
Parents and teachers also need to recognize that a loss can cause other losses to resurface. (Remember–we don’t ever really get over it?)
On the subject of what to say and do, Paul suggested that for those with a connection to the family, tell them you’re thinking about them or that you’re sad that they are going through this loss.
Paul recommended the following books:
Living with Grief: Children and Adolescents (Hospice Foundation of America), by Doka and Tucci
Lifetimes: A beautiful way to explain death to children, Mellonie and Ingpen
What’s Heaven? Maria Shriver
Sad isn’t bad: A good-grief guidebook for kids dealing with loss, Mundy and Alley
Most of these books are for younger children. Please make recommendations for older children in the comments section.