By Sara Deren, founder and CEO of Experience Camps
Before America was hit by the coronavirus, one in five children would experience a significant death by age 18, and one in 14 children would experience the death of a parent or sibling.
Now, as the nation reaches the grim milestone of 245,000 COVID-19-related deaths, the number of grieving children has risen dramatically. COVID-19 has been dubbed a "bereavement multiplier," leaving an additional 2.2 million Americans grieving the death of a loved one.
There can be remarkable resilience following loss, particularly when people are supported through the process of grief by a caring community. When children talk about grief, it can foster a positive sense of self and a healthy concept of death and loss. Sharing their story with someone else can foster community and lets them know they are not alone.
Unfortunately, too many kids aren’t fully supported in their grief. Most adults who experienced the death of a parent when they were children say it took more than six years for them to move forward. Yet, for 20 percent of them, support from family and friends tapered off after just one week. Most felt that they were on their own after only three months. Yet, after a death, the rollercoaster of emotions can continue for years, often reappearing at new developmental milestones or around significant dates, like the holidays.
Grief can leave children vulnerable to a range of negative outcomes, such as increased anxiety, depression, and even a greater risk of mortality from suicide and other factors. The impacts of a significant death can fundamentally alter a child’s economic security, which research suggests is a particular risk for children mourning COVID-19-related deaths. Grief is a mental health issue, and it deserves our attention.
This year, on Children’s Grief Awareness Day, a broad and growing coalition is coming together to Talk About Grief — through a campaign that helps families cope with loss this holiday season. We are inviting people to listen to stories of grief, share their own experiences, and “tag” others to show that they care.
TAG is designed to foster community and help grieving children realize they are not alone. A number of celebrities have powerfully illustrated that message for the kids by sharing their own stories of grief. Notable voices include Cate Blanchett, Andy Grammer, and Jon Dorenbos.
Sharing your story with others is a powerful way to help grieving kids and adults. Here are a few simple steps you can take to begin talking about grief:
- Get inspired. You’re not alone in grief. In fact, it’s something we all experience at some point, and it can help to hear stories from others. Use #TalkAboutGrief to find out what others are saying about their own experiences with grief.
- Share your story. Share your story and invite them to share theirs. Write a letter (you don’t need to send it). This could be a letter to the person who died, a letter to your past or future self, or a letter to someone who helped you with grief. Consider sharing your story on your social media channels to inspire others.
- TAG someone to show you care. Reach out to someone to say they are on your mind. That’s particularly important this year, with more people feeling a sense of loss, and fewer getting together in person due to physical distancing requirements. You could text, call, or video chat with a friend or loved one. Give them the opportunity to talk about their grief with you. Be an active listener, ask questions, and offer comfort.
But how exactly should we talk about grief? Many people are unsure how to approach the topic. In fact, 45 percent of Americans acknowledge that thinking and talking about death makes them uncomfortable, and 63 percent say they sometimes avoid talking to someone about their loss because they’re worried they’ll say the wrong thing. Talking about grief can be difficult, but it’s important and can make a meaningful difference.
After spending more than 450,000 hours with grieving children, my team can report that talking about grief is a seemingly simple step that can make a lasting difference. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Don’t be afraid to talk or reach out. If you know someone who is grieving, you won’t make things worse by raising the subject. And, if you’re grieving, get support.
- Be patient with yourself. You don’t need to have the “perfect” answer to help someone. Listen to hear and understand and try not to get distracted by planning out your response. If you’re grieving, be gentle with yourself. Allow for moments of silence. Be willing to sit with the feelings that come up.
- Remember, while we all grieve, each experience is different. Don’t hold anyone, including yourself, to outside standards. Be open and listen, and most importantly: be you. Show up to the conversation with your most authentic self.
When you’re ready to begin, take a few deep breaths. Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to grieve — or to talk about it. Practice saying what you want to share. It will get easier each time.
There is no question that grief changes our lives. It can replace the usual joys of life with guilt, anxiety, regret, and a sense of isolation. But, when we talk about grief, it can foster a positive sense of self and a healthy concept of death and loss, particularly for children. Sharing our stories can foster connection, community, and resilience. Ultimately, we believe that by talking about grief, we can build a more empathetic, grief-smart culture.
Sara Deren is the founder and CEO of Experience Camps, a national non-profit that provides no-fee, clinically informed camps and other programs for kids who have lost a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver, and resources and advocacy to lead the fight against unresolved childhood grief.