Gaby has recently begun to wear her brother’s clothes and go through the things left in his room at home. Her teacher says she has been talking about him a lot and asking to see me, and has started acting out in class. School staff may be baffled – after a rough year at school last year where she was dysregulated in the classroom until early spring, she has, overall been having a good year. And, if they are like most of us who deal with bereaved children, they may be thinking that she had “gotten over” it, especially since it has been more than a year since his death.
One of the things I love about Gaby is that she has not built up the layer of defenses many of my young clients have around the death of their loved one. She is, and appropriately so, responding to the ebb and flow of grief. November is her brothers’ birthday, Thanksgiving in a home with a large family who acutely missed his presence last year, and the beginning of the transition to both winter and the holiday season. These are typically difficult times for grieving children, especially those in a developmental transition, as Gaby is at eight years old.
November is also Children’s Grief Awareness month. The National Alliance for Grieving Children states that childhood grief is one of our society's most overlooked and least understood issues. This lack of community awareness compounds the grief journey that every bereaved child and their family must undergo. And in a culture which increasingly turns toward rapid solutions to death, memorials, uncomfortable feelings and even trauma, the extended experience of grief is misunderstood and sometimes diagnosed incorrectly.
Statistics show that 1 in 5 children will experience the death of someone close to them by age 18.
(Journal of Death and Dying). In a poll of 1,000 high school juniors and seniors, 90% indicated that they had experienced the death of a loved one (National Adolescent Health Information Center). And one out of every 20 children aged fifteen and younger will suffer the loss of one or both parents. 1.5 million children are living in a single-parent household because of the death of one parent.
According to Gerald Koocher, chief of psychology at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, mortality rates for adults in their 40s and 50s in the past two decades have risen dramatically, making it more likely that younger children will experience the death of a parent. In addition, one in every 1,500 secondary school students dies each year. “Kids are encountering death more often and at a younger age—it’s just inevitable,” says Dr.Koocher.
We have seen this rise in bereaved children echoed in La Plata County in the past few years.
Anthony visits my office two times per week after dropping out of school in the fall. He is charming and easy going on the outside, but suffers from severe anxiety on the inside. Anthony’s father completed suicide when he was five years old. At fifteen, he is worried that he will follow in his father’s footsteps, and is seeking a deeper understanding of the causes of his father’s death as well as some better coping skills than he is currently using. Anthony is not unlike many bereaved teens, 41% of which say that they have acted in ways that they knew might not be good for them, either physically, mentally or emotionally, and 73% who say that they think about their loved one every day, according to the NAIGC.
In a survey conducted by the NAIGC, bereaved children say the pervading emotion they currently feel is sadness, with feeling angry, alone, overwhelmed and worried being top other emotions. They report that they have trouble sleeping and that they have more trouble concentrating on school work. Children in bereaved families are both more likely to leave full-time education at age 16 and have significantly higher rates of school suspensions and truancy.
Classroom teachers report that students who have lost a parent or guardian typically exhibit
difficulty concentrating in class, withdrawal/disengagement and less class participation, absenteeism, and a decrease in quality of work. According to a 2012 national survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, 7 in 10 teachers (69%) currently have at least one student in their class(es) who has lost a parent, guardian, sibling, or close friend in the past year.
Grief has no time line, and often children will revisit their grief in different ways and at different developmental stages throughout their life. Bereaved children report that they are most helped through their grief by their relationships to other family and friends who can provide attentiveness, warmth, and connection, by being given space to experience and express their grief in their own ways, and by going to individual and/or group grief counseling. Connecting to peers who have also experienced a death can relieve feelings of isolation.
Bereaved children are often referred to as the "forgotten mourners”. Children's Grief Awareness Month is an opportunity to tell children they are not forgotten and that there is support, hope and healing to be found within the context of their family, culture, and community.
This article was published in The Durango Herald on December 5, 2015.