How is Grief Like an Onion?

I once heard someone say that grief is like an onion. You peel away the layers, revisit it fresh over and over again, and each time that happens you have an opportunity to have some more of the grief come out. Like an onion, grief growth for children occurs in layers. Children revisit a death as they age, and each time they reach a new developmental level and milestone they feel and wonder about the death differently. More grief comes out and more grief is processed. 

Children are naturally working hard to peel away their own fragile and sometimes transparent layers of grief to try and understand death. It’s work that lasts a lifetime. We help by remembering that grief never goes away, and is integrated. Children need us to listen, answer questions, and give them ways to express and process sometimes frightening and powerful emotions. Over time, children develop greater cognitive ability to understand the permanence of death. As this happens we need to be right there helping them figure it out. Grief is so complicated. 

You empower grieving children by giving choices about how they want to recognize their loved one’s time on this planet. You may be caring for children who carry earlier grief, and need to express and explore the loss at a higher developmental level. Invite children to tell you stories about their person who died, and work together to honor the things they remember. Did Daddy like to fish? Set up fishing in dramatic play and fish like Daddy. Nana used to sew buttons back on for the family, so offer colorful large-button sewing with plastic needles at the art table. Uncle Jim loved to play bingo, so why not create bingo games that Uncle Jim may have liked? Wonder together about why Uncle Jim thought Bingo was fun. Talk about Daddy and Nana and Uncle Jim as you play together. This sends the message to grieving children that their person is not to be forgotten, but to be remembered, storied and celebrated daily. Teach that loved ones die, are not coming back, but we can feel better when we think about them and enjoy some of the things they loved to do. 

Step out of life’s routine and move beyond remembrances that happen only on special dates. Birthdays, death anniversaries and holidays are significant, but there are so many other days of the year to live and love. On non-significant days, celebrate with children about the special qualities and memories of loved ones who have died. It will feel like music to their hearts. Listen, distill a child’s story, and create a safe space to invite daily remembrances of that person into your lives and classrooms.   


If you’re looking for a guided program to support the work you’re doing with children in crisis, I wholeheartedly recommend Art With Heart:  is a Seattle-based organization dedicated to helping children heal from trauma through their therapeutic books and programs that use creativity to turn pain into possibility. Bulk discounts and curriculum are available, and all proceeds benefit children in crisis. 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.