In Grief Support, Sometimes Simplicity is Best

The moment you learn that a child you care about is dealing with death, a running ticker tape of emotional responses begins to scroll through your head. 

...What do I do? This is so scary. How do I help? I can’t believe this happened...

As you parse through the rich and growing material circulating within the childhood bereavement support community, isolate the advice that matches your special needs. Grief support is not supposed to be a ‘one size fits all’ experience. Despite what you may know about stages of grief, the bulwark of grief growth happens in tasks. So it is best to rely on grief support resources honoring grief in tasks, not stages. Grief is not orderly and bereavement responses do not follow linear timelines. Children handle the emotions associated with death and loss in real time, at their present level of development. Any support response you deliver must be adaptable and modified as the child matures.  

The National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) http://www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org/ is the premier resource for best practice in grief support for children. Although bereavement support cannot be accomplished in simple steps, NAGC member The Amelia Center www.ameliacenter.org offers this thoughtful list sharing 10 Ways to Help Grieving Children: 

http://childrengrieve.org/sites/default/files/spiritweb/10%20Ways%20to%20Help%20grieving%20children.pdf

Grief support can be overwhelming. And sometimes you have to begin with a simple list of directives, and grow your support from there. Every death and grief story is unique, and when you’re teaching children how to be alive again, you’ve got to do it in such a way that the child feels you can see inside of them. So be as honest with yourself as possible about what you can do, seek help for what you cannot do, and share the kind of support that feels most authentic for everyone.  

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

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:    

http://artwithheart.org/  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.

No More Erasers!

Most of the work we do with young children is soul work. Children study us to learn how to live, love and relate to one another. Word choice is important, but we know the behavior we model is what really matters. We also know that children need to feel safe on order to reach higher levels of learning. So when we try to protect them by not talking about death, we inadvertently create fear, confusion and mistrust. Which is as far away from a feeling of safety that you can get. 

“There was so little air and light in my childhood, so little circulation and transparency and truth. When people and pets died, it was like the Big Eraser came and got them, except for a few mice and birds we buried in the back yard… I was terrified of death by the time I was three or four, actively if not lucidly.” © Anne Lamott, Excerpted from Help thanks wow, 2012.  

Talking about death with children is deeply personal and situational. In some cases, we may need to seek the advice of a professional counselor to know how and when to tell a child about a death, especially if it’s a traumatic event. But unless we find a safe way to be open with children about hard things like death, they’ll just create their own explanation for why the person or pet is gone. Sometimes children assume guilt, and often they develop fears or feel betrayed when we don’t explain in simple terms what happened. Even very young children want to be included in our sad and snug inner circle of grief. They already sense something is terribly wrong. Let the child’s natural curiosity and developmental level guide the amount of information you share. But find a way to share.  

It’s so important to begin to teach young children about death as they work to construct their own understanding about life. Read to children about life and death and lifespans, and make space for them to safely wonder, worry and ask as many questions as they need to. There are many excellent books out there…and there are some truly unhelpful ones, too. So preview the material to make sure the message is exactly what you want to convey, and is developmentally appropriate for the child(ren). Here are a few titles I think honor research-based, nurturing bereavement support for children: 

Loewen, N., & Lyles, C. (2012). Saying good-bye to Uncle Joe: What to expect when someone you love dies. Mankato, MN: Picture Window Books.

Mellonie, B., & Ingpen, R. (1983). Lifetimes: the beautiful way to explain death to children. Toronto: Bantam Books.

Rogers, F., & Judkis, J. (1988). When a pet dies. New York: Putnam.

Romain, T., & Verdick, E. (1999). What on earth do you do when someone dies? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

 

Read together, then listen fully, and help a child assign meaning to the trauma that may have happened. In this way you will teach children you are to be trusted, and they do not have to be so afraid of the very hard things in life…because they know they are not alone. 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

Social and Emotional Learning; a Proven Investment

Grief support training for educators is compelling. But, as in all things having to do with school services, money is a problem. Administrators calibrating complicated budgets may only approve professional development for staff that is a proven value-added product, preferably supported by data driven results. No more coloring outside the lines. 

Current research does associate a high return on investment in social and emotional learning. In a recent and critical study, reviewed in the latest edition of Education Week, Columbia University researchers Henry M. Levin and Clive Belfield examined the relationship between dollars spent in social and emotional programming and positive outcomes for children, in “The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning. The study reveals the benefits associated with social and emotional learning result in a high return on dollars spent. I think this research is pivotal, and helps support the cause for social and emotional training for educators. And naturally, I would add childhood bereavement support training for educators to the list of value added products under consideration. 

"Their findings are striking: Each of the socially and emotionally focused programs—4R’s, Positive Action, Life Skills Training, Second Step, Responsive Classroom, and Social and Emotional Training (Sweden)—showed significant benefits that exceeded costs. In fact, the average among the six interventions showed that for every dollar invested, there is a return of more than 11 dollars. The lead researcher told us, “These are unprecedented returns, particularly given that, while the estimates of the costs are clear, only a portion of the possible benefits are captured.” Benefits include reductions in child aggression, substance abuse, delinquency, and violence; lower levels of depression and anxiety; and increased grades, attendance, and performance in core academic subjects."

Shriver, T., & Bridgeland, J. (2015, March 1). Social-Emotional Learning Pays Off. Education Weekly.

To read Shriver's and Bridgeland's full review link to:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/02/26/social-emotional-learning-pays-off.html?tkn=SPVFoNwjWu%2Frk6NU7SpR218H6HvVx9UahOJt&intc=es

 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

Accepting Messy

We know the best moments in the classroom happen when children experience self-directed learning. When a child constructs his own understanding the greatest growth and efficacy take place. We work to create environments rich with choice and experimentation so children are able to investigate on their own terms. Similarly, we must give grieving children a sense of agency by providing a means for executing control over their own grief journeys. We assist children by interfacing the tenets of child led grief support with self-guided learning. When children are given the space to choose the timing and expression of their grief, they are more likely to cultivate healthy mourning. To serve children well we must be emotionally and fully present, provide multiple forms of self-expression, and accept messy moments with grace; messy feelings, messy reactions, messy timetables. Pain is messy. 

A beautiful art teacher I know begins every session with children by saying, " The true sign of a really good day is the mess we make. The messier, the better!".  That is her experiential truth. I believe this messy mantra applies to grief journeys. We have to wade around in the muck and mess of emotions to begin to make sense of it all. If we hold it all in, suppress or redirect pain, we risk emotional and physical turmoil. Children deserve and need these same grief freedoms. So we do our best if we partner with children and support them while they wade into murky emotional places. Often this feels scary, because we'd much prefer to protect children from what we view as over exposure to pain. We'd really rather try to order a child's grief by forcing him to engage in ways we think are best. But with grief, children know exactly how close they are willing to get to death, and it is our job to listen, sense and respond. Grief support is tentative, complicated and personal. It is just so messy. 

I think what we need to do is accept messy, surrender to messy and welcome messy. Maybe we need to remember to be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves when it feels overwhelming to support a bereaved child. Sometimes we have to make a mess of grief in order to learn how to live with it. For adults and children, self-directed learning may be the path to self-actualization, and the only way through. We have to allow children the same opportunities we would give ourselves to direct their own level of engagement when dealing with the death of someone close. One way to articulate your willingness to allow children the freedom to grieve is to create what Dr. Alan Wolfelt calls safe holding environments, places that allow children to feel safe to emote authentically and without judgement, without redirection, and just let the child lead. If given freedom to grieve on their own terms, children will only get as close to death as they need to; they will dose themselves and this will happen organically. We just need to stay out of their way, without over protecting, and not over sharing. We need to be honest with children about what has happened, and leave space for them to ask their own questions, and create places for children to express what is on their minds and in their hearts. If you can do this, you will allow a child will lead his grief journey. There will be messy days, but if we show a child we are patient and accepting of his unique needs to express his grief, we'll be nurturing his ability to mourn, then heal. 

If you would like to learn more about how to companion a grieving child by promoting careful listening and observation, I encourage you to read Dr. Alan Wolfelt's Companioning the Grieving Child: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers. You can find this book on Amazon or link directly to The Center for Loss Bookstore:

http://www.centerforloss.com/bookstore/

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

Six Guiding Principles for Educators

Honestly, I can't give you a magic formula to plug in and heal a grieving child. But I can help you organize your thinking in a way which aligns with best practice (and connects with our heart songs). I ask you tweak it, modify it and work to create a plan that is right for you and the children in your care.

This framework, Six Guiding Principles for Providing Grief Support in the Classroom, is a thoughtfully suggested starting point. My intent is to illuminate, not to direct. This is a logical and research-based action plan for you to consider as you work to provide compassionate care for grieving children specific to school and care settings. To write it, I've examined bereavement support theory, engaged in course work with experts in the grief support field and I continue to nurture grieving children and families. I've cut away at the underbrush and created a clearing to help you provide this life changing assistance for children. 

 

Six Guiding Principles for Providing Grief Support in the Classroom

  1. Allow children to direct their own grief journeys.
  2. Understand children’s responses to grief.
  3. Integrate childhood bereavement support with good teaching practice.
  4. Proactively teach children about life and death.
  5. Work to prevent isolation for grieving children.
  6. Identify local bereavement support resources.

 

The success of these guiding principles hinges completely on giving a grieving child your full attention. When you give someone your full attention, you create a greater connection. And when you create a greater connection, you shape a more positive outcome. Every teacher must know how to support a grieving child, and this is where you begin. 

If this is useful to you, and you want to learn more, please sign up for this blog. Share this with other educators and adults caring for children. Consider my workshop and look for my forthcoming guide for educators. Thank you for caring so very much about children that you would seek to find new ways to nurture bereaved hearts. 

Copyright (2015) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

Help During Holidays

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, founder and director of The Center For Loss and Life Transition wrote this piece to nurture mourners during the holidays. His words are very good medicine. 

Try to remember to give grieving children your full attention as they work to try and create new identities, and as they bring forth new ways to celebrate the holidays without their person who died. Blessings to you, and take good care of yourselves as you nurture big and little hearts. 

http://www.centerforloss.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Heal-During-Holidays.pdf

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

 

How to Talk With Children About Death

I'm often asked how to talk with children about death. My answer includes one constant message and a two variables. This response is tailored for educators, but parents will also find it very helpful. 

My one constant message is that we must tell the truth. Recently I heard someone say that it's better to tell the truth and make someone sad, than to tell a lie and make someone happy. When children ask, we have to tell them the truth. And when they don't ask we have to be brave, do our best, and tell them what happened. Death is painful and nobody wants to hurt a child so we choose our words as carefully as we can. Our natural instinct is to want to protect and shield children from emotional hurts until they are older and stronger. But the only way children will get stronger is if we scaffold them through adversity. We can be by a child's side listening reflectively and encouraging, but we cannot take the pain away. We know we can't guard children from painful experiences. And we also know we promote growth by partnering, coaching and loving children through the tough times. Our hope is by allowing children to honestly experience death, grief and mourning, with adults as companions, they will gain the skills to handle life with greater competency.  

Another crucial reason for telling the truth when talking with children about death is grounded in trust. Children know when we are telling the truth or not, and they sense when we are masking the truth. We may mean well, but the energy we grown-ups expend by not telling children what has happened is futile, and sure to result in greater difficulty later as we try to repair the trust relationship with the child. Masking the truth and omission are big barriers to grief growth for children. Huge! 

Naturally, there are variables impacting the ways adults talk with children about death. I've chosen to address two variables as they relate to teachers and students. First, the amount of information you share with a child depends on his developmental level. A child's ability to understand death is often not associated with his chronological age; all children are unique. To help you determine where the child you support may be in his emotional and cognitive development in his response to death, use the content from this link that outlines Children's Developmental Responses to Grief by the Dougy Center: 

http://www.dougy.org/grief-resources/developmental-grief-responses/

As an educator, another variable to consider is your relationship to the child. The way a parent or family member talks with their child may vary greatly from the way a teacher or caregiver communicates. Truth remains a constant, but adults other than the grieving child's family and primary caregivers must be very careful not to overshare, not to disclose too many details about the death with the child. As educators, we must honor the choices family members make when communicating about the death with children. Your communication with the family will be key. Ask them what they would like you to tell their child when talking about the death at school. Honor the choices made by the family.

Finally, when talking with children about death keep it very simple.

  • Use clear, plain language, avoiding confusing euphemisms like, "lost" or "sleeping".
  • Affirm what death means, that it is when a person or pet's body parts stop working and that is why they died.
  • Give children your full attention and listen. Put away the cell and put the child first. 
  • Don't answer questions they do not ask. (Don't overshare.)
  • Young children will not understand death is permanent and the person or pet will not be coming back. You will have to gently remind them when they ask, "When will ___ be back?"

Please remember the greatest harm to a grieving child occurs when adults and children around them pretend nothing has happened. So please talk with the grieving child about their person who died. Be brave, trust yourself, and do your best. 

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope Enters In; Supporting a Suicide Mourner

I recently completed a training course at The Center for Loss and Life Transition on how to support suicide mourners. I'm a subject matter specialist, an educator, so I don't  provide counseling or therapeutic support. My goal is to responsibly connect educators with grief support resources. I feel equipped to relay a small part of the foundational understanding of suicide grief support that I learned from Dr. Alan Wolfelt, as it relates to guiding a compassionate response for educators. Therefore, you cannot read this entry and be qualified to counsel a suicide mourner. Rather, you will learn a selected segment of information about suicide grief, and how to begin to nurture a grieving student and family as a caring companion when they return to school following a suicide death. Here you will find information on where to access additional national and local support for child and family suicide mourners. 

The Societal Stigma of Suicide

Every death is very painful. Death by suicide carries a societal stigma that very often disenfranchises the mourner. Suicide is a complicated death. It is sudden, traumatic, unexpected, and premature. In some situations the survivor is traumatized by witnessing or discovering their person who died. The question of ‘why’ is pervasive, and it's on everyone’s minds. People are frightened. Often the mourner is abandoned by friends and family; people don’t know what to do or what to say, so in response they avoid the mourner.

As a result of fear and misunderstanding, survivors of suicide deaths are often left with a feeling of abandonment at a time when they need unconditional support and understanding. Many people suffer alone or in silence.” (Wolfelt, 2014) 

Ways Educators Can Support:

There are some things we can do responsibly as non-counselors to try to provide the most caring and qualified support for student suicide mourners and their families. If at all possible, talk with the adults caring for the child before he returns to school to offer your support, and try to learn what he knows about the death. You do this so you may partner with his primary caregiver, so you do not over-share, and so you can extend the kind of support his parent or guardian desires for him to happen at school. This gesture is an opportunity to reach out to the student's primary caregivers to create a partnership. When you feel it is appropriate, share access to local bereavement support resources. If you're able to model natural expressions of care and outreach, and not allow the stigma of suicide to impact your level of grief support, you will teach others to do the same. And you will offer hope to this unique mourner. 

1.  Educate yourself about suicide grief.

        Helping a Suicide Survivor Heal:

http://www.centerforloss.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/HSSH.pdf     

2.   Try not to be afraid to talk with the mourner about their person who died.

    The AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) offers these manageable ways to actively support and communicate with a suicide mourner. These suggestions are general, but you may modify them for children, taking into account the child's appropriate developmental level.   

    -Reach out. Be there. Your very presence will be comforting and reassuring.

    -Follow the lead of the person who is grieving. Some survivors of suicide loss find it helpful to talk about the details of the death, share pictures of their person who died, cry, or express their intense emotions. Others prefer not to.

     -Listen with your full attention.

     -Don't be afraid to ask about their person who died or to say their person's name. It hurts so much more when no one talks about the person they lost.

     -Offer to help with specific tasks. Instead of saying, “I’m here if you need me” or “Tell me what I can do to help,” ask, “Can I help by…”

You can access the full pdf from AFSP here:

http://www.afsp.org/coping-with-suicide-loss/for-others-who-want-to-help

3.  Familiarize yourself with- and be ready to share -local and national grief support                          resources.

 http://www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org/find-support

Alan Wolfelt taught me that grief support is anchored in humility. I am critically aware that I have only just begun to learn about suicide grief support, and I tread softly and carefully as I relay teaching points. What I know is that in grief support we must be brave. We cannot be afraid to talk about it, even if there has been a suicide.

“Talking about the person who died is like holding up their love story.” (Wolfelt, 2014) 

I hope this begins to help you and the children you serve if there is a death by suicide in your school community.

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.

A Teaching Resource- Art With Heart; Kids Healing Through Creativity

ART WITH HEART; Kids Healing Through Creativity is nonprofit based in Seattle, WA. Their recently developed product, Draw It Out,  is a strength-themed workbook designed to as a tool for children to express their innermost thoughts and feelings. This workbook helps promote social and emotional growth in all children, and is an excellent resource for promoting self-reflection in an elementary classroom. Draw It Out  is especially beneficial for children who may have experienced (or experience with regularity) high levels of trauma. I recommend this workbook as a tool to promote the social and emotional growth of all children in your classroom, particularly the well being of a grieving child.

Draw It Out aligns beautifully with an elementary literacy program because each page involves the pairing of written responses by the child, with purposefully created illustrations. There are prompts, thought-starters, and spaces for children to respond to thoughtful and self-reflective questions.

 You can order your copy of Draw It Out, or learn more about other tools and programs available by linking to artwithheart.org:

"Art with Heart is a nonprofit based in Seattle, WA, dedicated to supporting the emotional well-being of children adversely affected by hardship, using creativity to lead to inspired possibilities. Since 2002, we have created healing, therapeutic books that bring together the best in therapy with the best in illustration to help children and teens facing distress and hardship. We offer trainings and programs to help children locally as well.

We believe that despite the many challenges children and teens face – illness, rape, divorce, separation, grief – their hearts can mend and they can thrive once again.

Our well-researched and evidence-based methods allow them to express their pain and their power so they can move beyond hardship and uncertainty to a lifetime of confidence and courage, so they can re-write their future."-  ARTWITHHEART.ORG

Copyright (2014) Suzanne Bayer. All Rights Reserved.