Catholic News Service
A girls looks at photo of her mother.
Catholic News Service
A girls looks at photo of her mother.
WASHINGTON — For many young children, it’s hard enough learning arithmetic and proper grammar. But grappling with grief after losing a loved one is in a whole other realm of difficulty.

Laurie Olbrisch, executive vice president of Rainbows, an international grief-support charity, said grieving children often experience low self-esteem and a sense of vulnerability that can impede their social and emotional development if left unchecked.

She said these feelings can put children at higher risk for developing patterns of risky behavior, such as drug abuse and promiscuity.

“Maybe they’re only in third grade when the loss happens but if they’ve never had any support or help … maybe by the time they’re a teenager those things will really manifest themselves in their personality,” Olbrisch said.

She noted that children are sometimes uncomfortable talking to counselors or psychologists about their grief.

That’s when a peer-based approach is better for helping them cope, Oldrisch said because they get to “talk about their loss in their own terms, on their own level.”

Hospice Support Care is a volunteer organization in Virginia that provides various services to seriously ill people and people suffering the loss of a loved one.

Once a year, in spring, the organization hosts Camp Rainbow, a weekend bereavement camp for children ages 5 to 12. The camp aims to strike a balance between recreation and grief-specific activities. Campers play games and participate in outdoor activities, like fishing and hiking, but they also take part in group discussions where they can share stories and express their feelings.

Kim Rudat, Hospice Support Care’s children’s bereavement coordinator, said the camps reduce children’s sense of isolation and give them an environment where they can help each other cope with grief.

“They learn from other kids their age experiencing the same feelings and thoughts,” Rudat said. “The big thing is they learn they aren’t alone. They aren’t the only ones who don’t have a parent.”

Hospice Support staff determines if children are ready to come to the camp during an intake process where they get to know the child. Rudat said she doesn’t recommend someone attending until two or three months after a loved one’s death, because some children are too numb to deal with their feelings, or too overwhelmed to address them in a group setting immediately after their loss.

The Rev. Lavender Kelley, a pediatric chaplain for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, spends much of her time helping children through various forms of grief, including the loss of loved ones.

She explained the different ways young children up to age 12 try to comprehend death.

Infants don’t experience the same sense of loss that an older child might, because their minds are so underdeveloped, Rev. Kelley said.

And while children between ages 2 and 5 are aware of their loss, they sometimes struggle to grasp concepts such as time and forever, so it can be hard for them to understand death as a permanent state, Rev. Kelley said. She said it’s important to be somewhat frank when explaining this, however hard that might be.

Being vague or using metaphors to explain death runs the risk of children indulging in fantasy and obsessing over something that will never change rather than addressing their feelings, Rev. Kelley said.

“You want to use very concrete language. Don’t say things like, ‘they’re gone.’ You use terms like death and dead, and not analogies like, ‘vacation’ or ‘sleep’,” the chaplain said. “They’re going to try to figure out how to make (their loved one) come back. Or they’ll start to think that any kind of illness or any kind of accident is going to cause the same thing.”

When helping a child through their grief, it’s important to listen and let them ask questions. For example, a 5-year-old asking if they will get a new sibling after losing a brother or sister might sound bizarre, but it’s not out of the ordinary for a young child who is grappling with the concept of death, Rev. Kelley said. Prior to the loss of a family member, for many children death has only come up when it pertained to pets or plants.

“The absolute worst things you can say to a kid is, ‘You don’t need to need to think about that’, or, ‘Don’t ask questions like that’. Because they’re going to think about it even more. And it’s going to turn into this cycle of unanswered questions that turn into fears that mount,” she said.