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By Jaclyn Durnil, MSW, January 15, 2019 –

Telling a child that someone has died can be difficult. Most children are aware of death, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it.

Children may have seen someone die on television or in a movie, or some of their friends may have lost a loved one.

Experiencing grief can be a confusing and scary process for kids.  Grieving is a set of emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical reactions that can vary depending on the individual and the nature of the loss.

During the grieving process children may have a difficult time processing the actual event and coping with the loss of the loved one. One of the primary feelings can be fear – fear of not knowing what can happen in the future or fear of the unknown.

Some children might have a more difficult time with the grieving process. It’s very important to be patient and understanding. Long-term denial of death or avoiding grief can be unhealthy for children. Grief can easily resurface and cause more severe problems.

Children experiencing grief may exhibit these types of behaviors:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Regression to younger behaviors, such as separation anxiety
  • Expressing a desire to be with the deceased person
  • Lack of interest in playing with friends
  • Changes in grades or school behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities that once excited them

Children are constantly learning and growing and may revisit the grief process several times. Events such as birthdays, graduation, holidays, etc. may be difficult for children at times.  There is no “normal” period of time for someone to grieve.

Simply being present and attentive to a child who is grieving will help as they express their feelings.  At times children may worry about how their parents or caregivers are adjusting. Children may find it safer and easier to talk with someone else such as a teacher, friend, Youth First Social Worker in their school, etc.

No one can prevent a child’s grief, but simply being a source of stability and comfort can be very helpful.  Very young children often do not understand that death is a permanent thing and may they think that a dead loved one will eventually come back.

For many children, the death of a pet will be their first experience with grief. They build a connection with their pet that is very strong, and when they no longer have that bond, it can be extremely upsetting. It is important to let the child grieve for their pet instead of immediately replacing the pet with a new animal.

During that period is an opportunity to teach the child about death and how to deal with grieving in a healthy and emotionally supportive way.  At times, children may seem unusually upset as they are unable to cope with grief, which can lead to adjustment disorder.

Adjustment disorder can be a serious and upsetting condition that some children develop after going through a difficult event. If a child is not recovering from a loss in a healthy way, it is important to consult with your child’s doctor.

By Heather Miller, LCSW, Courier & Press, April 10, 2018 –

“On Saturday, I’m going to help with Camp Memories.  I’m excited!” 

“What’s Camp Memories?”

“It’s a day-long program for kids that have lost a loved one.  It’s a great day.”

“That doesn’t sound fun.  That sounds sad.  What do you do all day, talk about people dying?”

This is typical of the response I receive when mentioning Camp Memories.  Grief is a subject that often makes individuals uncomfortable.  The idea of spending an entire day centered on loss is unimaginable to many; however, it’s one of my favorite programs.

When children lose a loved one, they experience a mixture of emotions.  Obviously, there is sadness and at times anger, but loneliness is also a key emotion related to grief.  After the death, the child must return to school where not many, if any, of their friends and classmates have experienced grief as they have.

According to an article in Social Work Today by Kate Jackson, this feeling of loneliness and standing out may lead to isolation.  Often, children cope with isolation by experiencing an increase in anxiety, substance abuse, and physical complaints.

At Camp Memories, losing a loved one is the common denominator among participants.  Children spend an entire day surrounded by other people their age that have a true understanding of what they’ve experienced.

Camp Memories began three years ago as a way to address the need to help children in our community cope with grief.  The Youth First program takes place on a designated Saturday from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm.  Master’s level social workers facilitate the program.

Camp Memories incorporates a variety of activities including sand tray therapy, normalizing grief through games, art therapy activities and free play.  Participants spend the day processing their experiences in a safe environment.  Additionally, parents participate in an opening and closing meeting to keep them informed about their child’s day.

At the beginning of the day, children are typically hesitant about participating and nervous about what will be discussed.  As the day progresses they begin sharing their experiences as well their emotional responses to these experiences.  Sadness, anger, guilt, worry, and fear are some of the common emotions children express throughout the day.

As the day grows to a close participants are smiling, chatting, and having fun playing with their new friends.  Allowing them an opportunity to talk about their grief through activities geared for children helps them make sense of their emotions.

In my experience as a facilitator for Camp Memories, I have seen children enter with grief weighing heavily on them.  I’ve seen these same children leave with a much lighter sense about them.  This is why this program is so important and beneficial.

Youth First’s next Camp Memories is scheduled for May 12 at Washington Middle School.  If your child has experienced the loss of a loved one and is interested in participating, please contact your school’s Youth First School Social Worker or Laura Keys at 812-421-8336 x 107.  Space is limited.  This is a free program that depends on donations to continue providing grief support for children.