Addressing grief and fostering resilience in children by Lanise Shortell

In this latest ICPCN blog post, Lanise Shortell writes about the need to provide children with the tools and the time and space to process their grief after the loss of a loved one. She gives practical tips and advice for adults who care for these children.

We often comfort ourselves with the belief that grieving children are resilient. Various experts attempt to calm parents in turbulent times by defaulting to the resilience of childhood. When a child experiences a significant loss, relying solely on resilience obstructs growing through grief. Simply relying on children to possess internal coping mechanisms to process significant loss increases the likelihood that emotional health will be adversely affected. Resilience is not a tool we instinctively possess or inherit. Childhood resilience is a tool that is purposely crafted, fostered, and nurtured.

Current statistics report that 1 in 4 children experience the death of a parent and or sibling prior to the age of 21, a statistic that reflects the stories of millions of minors. The statistics compel us to pay attention to our children, be intentional with our guidance, and allow room for emotions to be expressed.

Adults protect children. We naturally shield our young from pain and suffering. This protective stance of family and friends often translates to remaining silent about loss. We rationalize that silence protects from additional wounding. Studies at Arizona State University (United States) are showing that silencing suffering only increases suffering.

Verbal and nonverbal disregard of developmentally appropriate communication further confounds childhood loss. You see, if a child does not process the pain of their first or second life changing loss, grief will wait. Grief is patient. Eventually, a third or fourth significant loss will unearth the emotional complexities from initial losses. I have witnessed this phenomenon within grief camps, grief support groups, and in family homes all around our world. Unaddressed grief is gut wrenching, spews sideways, and spills over into every facet of life. We cannot safeguard our children from loss. We can, however, normalize the emotional processes surrounding loss shielding our young from experiencing invisibility.

We can choose to foster emotionally safe environments of warmth, acceptance, and stability where children are allowed to speak their sorrow. We can offer children space to flourish into adults that honor emotions surrounding grief. Below are a few tips that may assist in opening up channels for transparent communication:

  1. Eliminate “should” in conversations. Children are developmentally programmed with a desire to feel normal. However, normal and abnormal do not exist in grief. Grief is an incredibly personal process. Projecting expectations of others onto a grieving child will build barriers to his/her honest feelings and communication. Providing sacred spaces for children to explore and discuss emotions without judgement enhances long term emotional well-being.
  2. Implement “parallel processing” in shared losses. Be a calm, steady, and abiding presence. Consistency opens avenues of trust that facilitate discussions. Reading and discussing an age appropriate book on loss with a younger child or admitting to an older child your own emotions surrounding a shared loss encourages dialogue. Welcome your feelings. Tears are truthful. Emotional equanimity fosters connections. It is important that children don’t feel alone to attend to their grief.
  3. Embrace vetted grief counseling and support groups. Gentle encouragement for children to participate in groups with others that have experienced similar losses can decrease the feelings of isolation that often accompany loss. When a child’s feelings are understood and validated, grief becomes much less overwhelming. Groups can be helpful in normalizing loss and encourage developmentally sensitive processing of emotions.
  4. Provide creative outlets for children such as drawing, journaling, solo/group sports, or simply being in nature afford space to acclimate loss into life. Pay attention to specific activities that kids are drawn to that foster individual expression. Ensure opportunities are provided to engage in these activities.
  5. Avoid platitudes. ‘He/She is in a better place’, ‘He/She is no longer suffering’, ‘God needed another angel’, are clichés that can dismiss emotions surrounding grief and suppress expression.
  6. Nourish with healthy food and ample rest. Grief needs space to breathe. Avoid busyness. Welcome silence and inactivity while being mindful of the nutritional needs of growing bodies.
  7. Feel free to speak the name of the deceased loved one. Honor the place that he/she filled within the family unit, and respect that love continues after death.

Grief is a universally shared human experience. Loss is experienced across all cultures, religions, demographics, and ages. It is time to open the dialogue with our children, our family members, and friends about loss. It is time to honor those we have lost. Contrary to many opinions, openhearted conversations about loss serves to enhance our living.

About the author
Lanise serves her local community as a perinatal and pediatric hospice nurse in Atlanta, Ga. She facilitates family centered grief groups biannually at Camp STARS, a family bereavement camp outside of Atlanta. Lanise speaks internationally to spiritual leaders on the importance of family grief support to enhance communities around our world. Lanise was placed on the advisory committee for the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation in 2006 and is certified and internationally recognized as a compassionate bereavement care provider. Lanise has two adult children and a rescue pup that expand her heart beyond measure. Her desire to speak into the lives of families living with grief was birthed from of life changing event that occurred when she was 4yo.  A motor vehicle accident that took Lanise’s family has become her vehicle to passionately address the importance of family focused grief care as she supports family units throughout our world.


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