Please, Don't Promote Survivor Shame

Please be careful not to promote survivor shame. I understand people want to find solutions to stop the gun violence against children in schools. But I’m concerned about a message circulating about a teacher’s strategy to help identify isolated or struggling children involving input from other children, seating charts, and affirmation. Yes, it is kind. And yes, it would be wonderful if teachers could do it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with intentional supports of social and emotional growth in children, that’s good practice. I am concerned that the narrative is promoting an unintentional sentiment, ‘If only we were more sensitive, maybe this would not have happened.’ Perhaps. But consider what this message sounds like to the victims.

Listen to the children at Stoneman Douglas High School when they tell you they do not want to be blamed for what happened because maybe they were not friendly or inclusive enough of the shooter when he was in school. It sounds like kids were very frightened of him then and found it hard to get close. Please be careful not to add grief guilt, please don’t blame the victims.

Read this excerpt from an impassioned Stoneman Douglas student, Emma Gonzalez,

"There is one tweet I would like to call attention to. So many signs that the Florida shooter was mentally disturbed, even expelled for bad and erratic behavior. Neighbors and classmates knew he was a big problem. Must always report such instances to authorities again and again. We did, time and time again. Since he was in middle school, it was no surprise to anyone who knew him to hear that he was the shooter. Those talking about how we should not have ostracized him, you didn't know this kid. OK, we did. We know that they are claiming mental health issues, and I am not a psychologist, but we need to pay attention to the fact that this was not just a mental health issue. He would not have harmed that many students with a knife.

And how about we stop blaming the victims for something that was the student's fault,..."              -Emma Gonzalez

Every teacher knows which children are struggling and which children are isolated. If you can't figure that out you are in the wrong profession. This latest shooter was like the others, he had highly complicated emotional issues and he frightened the children going to school alongside him. The shooter needed intensive intervention, likely for years, and it was the responsibility of adults to act. It sounds like many adults tried. And many did fail. 

Of course, we want to teach our children to be kind, inclusive, helpful, and respectful of others. And who are we to say the victims were not? They sound like thoughtful kids. Be careful of the hearts of the surviving children, and there are so many of them, and do not promote ‘if only’ thinking. Seating chart strategies, like the one I am referring to in this piece, can be part of a comprehensive approach to good social and emotional support of all children in school. Children need to know adults will do the work of securing mental health support and behavioral interventions for any children who need it. Otherwise, I don’t think children can ever feel safe at school. 

How to Make a Remembrance Collage

 How to make a Remembrance Collage:   (Share widely!) This is a project description of a co-created fabric collage I made with the children and teens at Ele’s Place, Ann Arbor, Michigan. It spans multiple age ranges and can be done with every community. This collaborative project hung as a backdrop during a Remembrance Ceremony November 2015. It now hangs in the Ele’s Place Shared Space. At the close of the ceremony, everyone gathered around to talk about their piece and their person. It was the most beautiful, loving, inclusive moment imaginable. Individual felt and fabric collage squares honoring their person who died were made weeks ahead during program group meetings, then stitched together to form one collage. The following is the lesson plan used to make this nurturing project happen!


“Create a design that honors or reminds you of your person who died.”

You may wish to describe the project to children and teens this way:

Tonight we’ll be working together to make something a little different. It is a decorated felt square we will sew together to make a collage for our community.  But no worries!! There will be supplies to make one more to take home! 

This project is about remembering something special about your person who died. What was something unique about them? What is something you miss about them? And what can you put on this square that helps you remember your person? 

Everyone will get a felt square to decorate with fabric and glue. You can use the fabric pieces the way they are, or you can cut them into shapes you want. Take time to think about it before you start. You choose what your design will look like, and here are a few made by some people. (Show samples). Yours will be unique and special, and it will not look like this. Only you can choose what your square will look like. 

When the squares are finished, you will leave them with your facilitator, and you will see them again stitched all together in one big wall hanging! “

Facilitators: Each room will get a kit including:

  • 1 felt square for each person
  • scissors
  • glue bottles to share
  • Please know we cannot have names on the squares, to protect the privacy of the participants. 

(Please have another activity available for early finishers!)

-And if you could bring along any extra trays to spread fabric pieces or extra scissors to use in your room that night, it would be very helpful! 

Facilitators, you will have an opportunity to make a square during our briefing meeting. Collect all the squares and extra supplies at the end of the evening for safe keeping! There will also be supplies available the following week for children who were absent and wish to make one. 


How Do I help A Grieving Child In My Classroom?

A Child in your classroom is grieving a death. What do you do? How can you help? You want to take the pain away, but you can’t. But, you can create a safe and empathetic place for all children to grieve and mourn a loss. This is how you do it. 

Develop Your Grief Support Protocol  

Start with great practice and develop your personal protocol for early childhood grief support. Reliable, emotionally competent teachers and predictable classrooms help bereaved children adapt. The following is a comprehensive, research-based framework to help you create your own plan for compassionate bereavement support within your unique setting. These guiding principles incorporate evidence-based bereavement support theory with best teaching practice.

 6 Guiding Principles For Grief Support At School & Care  

  • Allow young children to direct their own grief journeys.  

  • Understand young children’s responses to grief.

  • Integrate early childhood bereavement support with good teaching practice.

  • Proactively teach young children about life and death.

  • Work to prevent isolation for grieving children.

  • Identify and share local bereavement support resources with families.

Allow young children to direct their own grief journeys:

Child-led grief support includes giving bereaved children agency to choose how they will engage with their grief, how they will express emotions and to never be pushed to ‘get over it.’ We know the most impactful learning is self-directed. When young children self-regulate their own grief journeys, while feeling the full support of the adults around them, they are able to cope better. We can’t plan a grief support timetable. (There is no timeline for grief!) The goal is to create open-ended social and emotional learning opportunities for all children to express themselves. We help best when we observe and respond compassionately to grieving children’s unique and ever-changing needs and cues, without judgment or redirection.

Instead of telling the child what he should be feeling, we respond to what he IS feeling. This means talking openly about death with the child. It’s very hard to talk about death with children, but if we help them feel safe enough to talk about scary things, like death, children will be less frightened. If we act afraid or uncomfortable, children will believe they should not be talking about the death. Sometimes grieving children don’t want to talk about what's happened. At that time we must respect they are not ready and never force. We help best when we let children know they are accepted and understood, then help them to feel safe enough to talk when they’re ready. Voice your understanding: “It’s okay if you don’t feel ready talk about what happened to your Uncle Bob. If that changes, I am always here to listen or maybe draw a picture with you about it.”

As long as no harm is done to another person, property, or himself, the grieving child must feel safe with you to express his feelings of anger, sadness, fear and confusion. At school and care, it is the responsibility of supportive adults to set secure boundaries for children to express pain while gently safeguarding the setting. Children need to know an adult will keep school and care feeling safe for everyone, especially when a child is learning to cope with powerful emotions. Voice your safe boundary setting: “Billy, I can really see you’re having some big feelings today. We can’t throw the markers, but we can use the colors on paper to let out some feelings. What does red feel like today? And what about blue, or yellow? Let’s find out together.” 

After a death, be prepared for children’s emotional reactions to elevate unexpectedly, even to small events. Overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and confusion can be masked by aggression, impatience and regressive behaviors in young children. We help best when we are patient, talk through the circumstance, and deliver compassionate support. At the same time, it’s crucial for both the grieving child and all other members of the classroom community to honor classroom guidelines. Consistency, even during upsets, will keep everyone feeling more secure and deliver a much-needed sense of normalcy for the grieving child. Voice your limit-setting and empathy: “We need to keep everyone feeling safe, so we are careful to not bump our friends with our bodies. The good thing is, we have this bubble wrap over here for squeezing the big feelings out whenever we need to. That feels safer than bumping.” Provide reliably accessible, ‘go-to’ choices for grieving children when they are feeling overwhelmed by emotion. Partner with children who need to learn how to express overwhelming emotions, and demonstrate safe ways to let feelings out. When adults provide what one of America’s leading grief counselors and author, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, calls safe holding environments of trust, empathy and respect, grieving children are more able to experience agency as they work to cope with the crisis of death. ( 

Understand young children’s responses to grief:

Developmental responses to grief are not universal, every child’s response to death is unique. It’s common for children to regress to younger behaviors when experiencing trauma. When this happens, we help best when we support a child’s reach toward emotional competency by offering encouragement they’ll be able to complete the task once again. Voice your patient and gentle reassurance: “It looks like it’s hard for you to put the book away. We’ll do it together this time, and next time you might do it yourself.”  

Integrate early childhood bereavement support with good teaching practice:

Young children lack the cognitive skills to know that death is permanent. Children need repeated and gentle reminders death cannot be reversed. It is great practice to offer all children multiple opportunities to construct new knowledge about life and death. This is practical, empathetic teaching. We support young children’s limited cognition and limited language skills when we supplement curriculum with life cycle and grief themed literacy. We cannot ask or expect young children to talk about their feelings. These skills, although emergent, are underdeveloped. Offer open-ended learning experiences, for example, by recording children’s personal narratives and stories. Read the stories together and with the group (always and only with the young narrator’s prior permission) to foster empathy, nurture inquiry and create understanding. We help children best when we use clear and concrete terms when talking about death. Idioms like “sleeping’ or ‘lost” confuse and frighten children. 

Engaging in play with grieving children and classmates is an opportunity to enhance new vocabulary. Voice your willingness to explore and question: “What is a funeral? Has anyone ever been to a funeral? What happens there?” When adults signal to children the topic of death is not taboo, all children benefit from feeling their classroom is a secure place to ask questions and learn about topics that may confuse or frighten them. It’s hard, but we help best when we weave nurturing and open spaces for young children to hold difficult conversations with caring adults.  

Proactively teach young children about life and death: 

Teaching that all living things have their own unique lifespans will help young children begin to understand the cycle of life and death. Work with children to notice and make comparisons between the natural rhythms of the lives of plants, animals, and humans. But be especially sensitive when approaching the topic if a death has recently occurred; you know your children best, so time and a little healing distance may be necessary if a crisis is recent. Examine lifespans of indigenous plants and animals to provide relatable experiences for children. We help young children understand life and death when we provide concrete learning experiences with living things found in local and natural environments. 

Work to prevent isolation in school or care:

Creating a caring environment for bereaved children and families elevates a school’s culture of inclusiveness. Death is frightening, and many people don’t know how to interact with grieving people. We help best when we model how to gently acknowledge the crisis and offer support to help prevent isolation. Reach out and partner with the grieving child’s family or guardians as part of your plan to cultivate an empathetic and inclusive classroom. Be intentional about checking-in regularly and often. Offer extra help and patience with paperwork and/or school communication tasks for overwhelmed grieving adults. Ask parents and guardians how they would like their child to be supported, and honor this. Your support plan may include: 

  • Before a bereaved child returns from a death-related absence, talk with classmates about what has happened using developmentally appropriate language you and your administrator have selected. Remember, less is more. Do not over share. Young children are egocentric and self-oriented; you will need to accept them right where they are, even if that means they cannot engage with the topic. They may not yet have the language skills required. Reassure classmates it’s okay to talk about the person who died and to ask questions. Explain what their friend may be feeling, and discuss ways they may be able to help.“When Sally comes back to school she may be feeling sad-missing-lonely-hurt. It will help Sally if you play together in all the ways you have loved before. It may even help a little bit if you ask her how she is feeling.”
  • Manipulate peer groupings. Partner the grieving child with the most nurturing, and socially and emotionally developed children in play, mealtime and project settings. This will help the bereaved child secure a sense of belonging. 
  • Consider creating a classroom memory space. Provide all children the opportunity to use this space to remember people or pets they loved who have died. This is a concrete and compassionate way for grown-ups and children to empathetically share their missing feelings in death and loss. The grieving child will know she is not alone. 

Identify and share local bereavement support resources with families:

Bereavement support groups are bridges of hope for many children and families, but they are not right for everyone. Some children do thrive in a support group setting, and others need more intimate support; the decision is not ours, it is best left in the hands of the bereaved families. Familiarize yourself with local child and family bereavement support organizations so you’re a capable and ready resource. Share what you learn with your administrator and colleagues, and work together to form a protocol for how your community will share bereavement support information with families. If your center or school has a social worker on your team, learn about referral processes used to help families access outside support. Above all, remember: you are not a therapist, and must never try to deliver therapeutic care. If you sense the grief is more than you can handle as a lay companion, partner with your administrators to help struggling families find the level of professional support they may need. 

If families do choose to connect with a local children’s bereavement center, they will often have access to support meetings and services designed to nurture both the adults and children in the family. It is commonly a free service. Every person in a family grieves differently, and each requires special care. Assistance designed to nurture the needs of all family members will promote healthier outcomes for grieving children. Children do better when the adults taking care of them are getting support, too. 

A child’s ability to process the pain of loss will be influenced by observing the adult’s experience of this process.” © J. William Worden, Children and grief: When a parent dies.

Finally, intuitive caregivers observe and honor how young children communicate grief through play, art and behavioral responses to loss. You truly will help best when you cultivate safe and accessible ways for young children to grieve at school and care. Changing lives is what teaching is all about. If you can fully support a grieving child at school, your life will be forever changed. I promise! 

Copyright (2016) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

Gently Supporting Traumatic Grief; Always and Forever

A Review of Always and Forever

Written by Alan Durant, Illustrated by Debi Gliori

I love this book because it carries the reader gently through the process of old age, loss, and finally resilience. 

Fox, Mole, Hare, and Otter live happily together as a family. Fox is significantly older than the other characters (walks with a cane) and he dies while walking in the woods one day. Mole, Hare, and Otter hold a memorial and weep for Fox. Then, as often happens, this little family isolates themselves in grief. Although they are reluctant to leave their home, a friendly squirrel carefully draws the grieving characters out of the house and back out into the world. Squirrel gently encourages the family, but is careful not to ask the grieving family to ‘get over it’. With Squirrel’s support, Mole, Hare, and Otter are able to remember Fox in meaningful ways and the return to activities they enjoyed doing with Fox.   

Few stories for children honor bereavement support theory as well as this book. The author gives a clear and simple description of Fox’s body when he is found. It’s so important for young children to learn how our bodies stop working when we die. This helps them understand and remember that death is permanent. If death is explained clearly and simply, children are able to form an understanding their person or pet will not be coming back to them. 

I also think this story is sensitive to children and families who’ve experienced finding their person has died in lonely settings, or maybe in a traumatic way. In this story, Fox is found alone and covered in leaves, which a distressing way to find someone we love. This story may provide an opportunity for children to share concerns about how their person was found. 

Teachers, you can use this story as a tool for promoting an empathy among classmates. It can be read prior to a grieving child’s return to school to help children understand some of the things that happen when someone dies. Some children may have experienced a funeral or memorial, and will find this story relatable. Some children may wish to share their memories of their personal experiences with death. When talking openly with children about death, children will realize they have so much in common and they’re not alone. This type of discussion is a form of inclusion and will nurture the grieving child while helping to prevent isolation.  

“And in their hearts and their memories and their laughter, Fox was still there, part of their family, beloved friend and companion-…always and forever.” 

This book is a beautiful gift to share with a grieving family or classroom. 

How Do You Help a Child Say Goodbye to a Pet?


I highly recommend this caring and engaging picture book to help you console a child after the death of a pet. Sammy In The Sky is written by Barbara Walsh and Illustrated by Jamie Wyeth for children between the ages of 4-7. 

Story Summary:

Sammy In The Sky is the story of a little girl, the death of her beloved dog, and the loving response within a family. Daddy gently tells the family that Sammy is sick, and soon after that Sammy dies. The family recounts memories of Sammy, remembering his silly ways. As they grieve for Sammy, the family repeats some of the same activities they once enjoyed with Sammy- but now without him. This hurts. But it does help to heal their hearts. Sweeping watercolor paintings by Jamie Wyeth illuminate this story about love, companionship and saying goodbye to a beloved pet.

Links to Children’s Grief Support:  

The father in this story models direct and simple communication as he tells his children about Sammy’s illness and death. This inclusiveness builds trust within the family. (Because even if you try to hide the truth, children always know when something is wrong.) The father listens carefully to his children, answers only the questions they have, and does not overwhelm them with too much information. Later, when the youngest child expresses hope that Sammy’s death is not permanent, the father gently explains that Sammy will not come back.  

“Can’t Sammy come back?” I asked Daddy.
“Just for a little while?” Daddy shook his head. “You’ll have to remember him in your heart,” he said.”

-Walsh, B. (2011). Sammy in the sky.  Somerville: Candlewick Press

This story assists both sisters, each at a unique developmental level, as they work to understand the permanence of death. One child is too young to cognitively process the death and hatches a plan retrieve Sammy from the sky. But the more developed child is able to begin to comprehend death is permanent. She expresses that her younger sister’s notion of bringing the dog home is not possible. This narrative will help you gently assist children as they begin to comprehend the permanence of death. 

Sammy In The Sky teaches and models lovely ways for adults to help bereaved children. In the story adults listen to their children, give them space to ask questions, and patiently explain that Sammy cannot come back. That is so painful. Adults also provide ways for the entire family to remember Sammy, helping the children turn their grief into mourning. Laced with melancholy, the family partakes in activities they once enjoyed with Sammy when he was alive, which is an important part of the healing process for grieving children. 

Barbara Walsh visits and Skypes schools, grief centers, and workshops. She also mails personalized copies of Sammy In The Sky to families and kids (with a customary charge for the book and postage.) What a lovely idea. 

You can contact Barbara directly:

Copyright (2016) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.


Three Ways to Help a Child Create a New Identity After a Loss

When we lose someone important we also lose what Dr. Alan Wolfelt refers to as our “mirror”.  These are the people who help us know who we are by the way our lives are reflected back through them. Mirror people shape us, love us, form part of our self-identities, and help us understand our place in this world. When our mirror person is gone our hearts protest,

 “I feel lost! I don’t have my mirror anymore to help me know who I am!” 

Naturally, children struggle with self-identity when someone dies because they’re building their own understanding of how they relate to the world. Losing a mirror person in childhood is catastrophic.

Here are three ways you can help a child create a new identity when someone in their mirror is gone:

  1. Keep talking about their relationship with their person.
  2. Expose children to ways kids like them are working to create new identities. 
  3. Help children express their love and connectedness to the person they lost.

Keep talking about their relationship with their person:

Children will tell you what they are worried about if you give them space and time. It’s important to help a child know that they will always be a son, daughter, sister, cousin, or friend. And it’s just as important to acknowledge that the relationship is forever changed. In many ways, they are still that same person they see in the mirror, but yes, they are changed.  

Expose children to ways kids like them are working to create new identities: 

Help me to feel, hear, see, learn…do. 

Giving children access to carefully selected stories, movies, age appropriate online grief support, and enrollment in peer-supported grief groups and bereavement support camps are some of the ways you can help children learn how other kids are working through grief. They have lost someone, but while connecting with other people’s stories, they may add a new mentor or two to their mirror. Find these resources at:

Help children express their love and connectedness to the person they lost:

This is where linking objects are so important. Give children access to items belonging to their person and let them choose some things to keep in their room, pocket or backpack. Make something to hold from the clothing of a loved one. Make a memory book with drawings, photos, and stories about times shared. Teachers, encourage making memory stories with children at school and care and talk freely about the things they loved about their person when they were here. Remind young children repeatedly that they will always be that child, grandchild, or friend. Help them remember and stay connected to the love they feel for their beloved.   

Copyright (2016) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

Finding the Words

How do I put this heartache into words so that a child might understand?

How do I share the unspeakable? 

These are the thoughts running through our heads when we're faced with telling a child about something extremely painful. Although the age of the child and the situation will vary, this I know: 

They want to know the truth and they need to hear it from us. 

Dr. Alan Wolfelt's Finding the Words is the best resource for talking with children about the crisis of death, suicide, homicide, end-of-life, cremation, and funerals available today. You'll find suggested phrases to use as well as a comprehensive and uncomplicated guide to children's grief support. Read and learn the tenets of companioning grieving children, how to help infants and toddlers when someone they love dies, as well as how teens typically respond to grief. You can purchase this excellent resource directly from The Center for Loss bookstore:

Copyright (2016) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.


"Holding Our Children in the Face of Terror"

More and more these days children's grief support is merging with terror. And due to the increasing exposure children have to details about horrific events at home and around the world, our role as supporters and nurturers is growing. I've written repeatedly about protecting children from over-exposure to terror and crisis reporting in the media. We know, due to limited cognition, many children viewing the news coverage following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 thought the twin towers fell over and over again. So they were traumatized over and over again. This can easily happen today. There is an undercurrent of fear in our world. Supporting children appropriately means ensuring they have opportunities to talk about what news they do hear and to ask their own questions. Talk about only what they want to know about, no more, no less. Let the child lead the content, you guide the pace.  

I'm pleased to share this resource to help lift up gentle conversations with children and answer difficult questions about crisis and terrorist activity. Read and promote this beautiful blog presented by 

What is sparkle?

"Sparkle is an online resource for high-quality audio stories for children and families. Each week Sparkle Stories delivers delightful audio stories to subscribers around the world. We offer twelve original Story Series, plus a thirteenth Series with classic stories, songs and games, all designed to entertain and inspire the whole family."

What's Your Grief is a comprehensive grief support website; Co-authors of this site are Baltimore-based mental health professionals with 10+ years of experience in grief and bereavement. "More importantly, though, we have both experienced the death of a parent and have dealt with life after that loss. Neither of us knew what resources were available to us at the time, and we fumbled through the darkness alone. Later we wondered why should anyone have to feel alone when so many of us have been through grief ourselves? For this reason, we are committed to delve into anything and everything grief-related and to provide a place where people can come to support and be supported.

Specifically, our mission is to promote grief education, exploration, and expression in both practical and creative ways. We aim to provide the public with…

  • Education that reaches beyond generalization
  • Practical and specific suggestions for moving forward
  • Modes of self-exploration and self-expression that suit all types of thinkers and doers
  • Ways to honor and remember deceased loved ones.
  • A supportive community"

This is the excellent advice offered by WYG following the recent terrorist attack in Paris:

Hold each other tight and take good care,


Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.


I Did Not Want My Child to See That!

It's all over social and mainstream media right now. I'm talking about the picture of the little Syrian boy who drowned while trying to escape the nightmare that was his home. The photograph of his precious little body laying at the edge of the water, as mourners and government officials sadly look on is circulating rapidly. I think this indelible image will haunt me for a long time, as intended.

So how do we help children if they see this image and some will? We care deeply about the drowned little boy and the circumstances surrounding his death, but It's just too scary a picture for children to see. Children don't have the capacity to process the depth of what happened to the little boy in the photo and they will become very afraid. After all, most adults are having great difficulty with the image.

We know some children will be exposed to this and many more disturbing pictures, so that's why we need to create a narrative for children to help balance the truth with a sense of security. The Dougy Center is a national center for grieving children and families. They provide support and training locally, nationally and internationally to individuals and organizations seeking to assist children in grief. They offer this helpful article on talking with children about tragic events:

"Try to limit their access to the recurring news and exposure to the tragedy over and over.
Over-exposure to the graphic and emotional news can be overwhelming for children and can cause unnecessary anxiety and fear. Some children who repeatedly watched the footage of planes crashing into the towers on 9/11 thought it was happening again and again. Some children (and some adults) may have difficulty getting graphic scenes and images out of their minds. Too much exposure can fuel their fear, so don’t let them sit and watch the news over and over. Better yet, set the example of not doing so yourself as well."

Donna Schuurman, Ed.D, F.T.
Chief Executive Officer
The Dougy Center for Grieving Children

We cannot turn away from those in need, but we've got to do our best to protect children from the frightening stream of media coverage during a crisis. Try to keep devices and TV off so you can choose how and when you want children to learn about sad and difficult events in life. And if a child comes to school or day care with concerns about what they may have seen on TV or in social media, try to find time to call home during the day to let their adult know they are worried. Create a plan of support together, and assure the child that they are safe.

Mr. Rogers will always be the best teacher on the topic of helping children to feel more secure. He told us, 

"Play is one of the important ways young children have of dealing with their concerns. Of course, playing about violent news can be scary and sometimes unsafe, so adults need to be nearby to help redirect that kind of play into nurturing themes, such as a hospital for the wounded or a pretend meal for emergency workers. 

When children are scared and anxious, they might become more dependent, clingy, and afraid to go to bed at night. Whining, aggressive behavior, or toilet "accidents" may be their way of asking for more comfort from the important adults in their lives. Little by little, as the adults around them become more confident, hopeful and secure, our children probably will, too."

- See more at

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

What We Say, What We Mean to Say, and Why "I'm Sorry" Doesn't Always Help a Grieving Kid

A good friend recently enlightened me about how to handle well intentioned people who say unhelpful things to grieving adults and children. We all do it, we're all human, and even the most professional grief worker can find herself regretting word choice. Loosely relating poet Maya Angelou's thoughts on fallibility, until we know better, we're not going to do better when it comes to talking with a child or adult who is in pain. (And when we know better, we'll do better!) We all have a lot to learn about how to talk to grievers. And when we find ourselves bereaved, we need help interpreting gentle and not so gentle communication during grief. My friend, who was mourning the loss of a loved one at the time, was given this beautiful advice by her caring and capable funeral services provider:

 "Many people will say things that don't help, and may hurt, but what they mean to say is, I love you and I'm here for you. No matter what someone says to you at the funeral, what they really mean to say is, I love you and I'm here for you. Try to hear them that way, dismiss what they may really say, and it will help."

It did help her. My friend said that translating people's words into a more nurturing and simple message of love and presence was a great comfort to her and to her family.

When children and teens at The Dougy Center are asked, “What’s something you wish people would stop saying?”, they reportedly break out in a chorus of “I’m sorry!”

So what's wrong with "I'm sorry?" It's not that the words are so terrible, instead think of the sentiment as an interrupter to grief. In an excerpt from the Dougy Center article, Alternatives to "I'm Sorry", children and teens explain: 

  • “How am I supposed to respond? It’s okay? I mean, really, it’s not okay.”
  • “Um, it’s not their fault, why are they apologizing?”
  • “It’s just so awkward. It’s like a total conversation stopper.”
  • “So many people say it, even people I’ve never talked to before, it feels kind of fake.”
  • “I know they mean well, but it just gets old.”

Read the full article to learn what children and teens say does help:

It occurs to me that if we all knew that being there (not just at the funeral, but over time) is what really matters to a mourner at any age, it would be okay if we simply shared our own version of, "I love you and I'm here for you." It's all a grieving adult or child really wants to hear anyway. So teach children about distilling what friends and others really mean to say when they try to communicate loving care, but slip-up. And give children agency during grief by encouraging them to think about what they want people to say, and help children to ask for THAT. 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.