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Back to School With Grief

It’s August which means many families are preparing for the start of school. When families are also grieving,  this transition can bring a mixture relief, dread, excitement, and trepidation.

Much like work for adults, children and teens spend a majority of their time at school and they take their grief with them. For some children and teens, returning to school is comforting. They find support in the structure, familiarity, connections with friends, and the opportunity to focus on something other than grief. For others though, it can be a challenging venture that brings additional stress, uncertainty, and worry. What to think through and how to help depends on a number of factors. How old is your child and what grade are they in? Who died in their life and what was their relationship? How did the person die? When did the loss occur? There’s no formula for how the answers to these questions affect someone’s grief, but they are important to consider as you sort through how to best support your child or teen in returning to school.

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Summertime and grief

Summer is a season of mixed emotions for many families in grief. The end of school and after-school activities can be a relief for some, especially if they struggled with having enough energy and concentration for class and homework. Others will miss the structure and social time that school and sports provide. For adults, summer might mean a less demanding schedule, but could also add the stress of finding childcare or having enough financial resources for camps and trips. 

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Father’s Day and Grief

As it is with many holidays throughout the year, Father’s Day, often sparks a multitude of emotions, especially when you’re in the midst of grief. While we hear primarily from children who are grieving the death of a father or father-figure and fathers who have lost a child, the day can be equally treacherous for those with complex relationships to fathers and fatherhood. Just a simple trip to the store can be a challenge during the lead up to Father’s Day. Those in grief face the barrage of card aisles and advertisements for “Great gifts for Dads!” along with well-meaning questions from friends and others about their plans. Then there is the day itself, which can be overwhelming to consider. It can also prompt new, creative ways to acknowledge the day, including doing nothing at all!

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Grief and Regret

While it’s never easy to sit with a grieving child’s pain, it can be especially so when they are struggling with feelings of guilt and regret. When someone dies, it’s almost inevitable that we’ll think back over our relationship with them and find ourselves at fault for something we said, did, or didn’t say or do. We might also wrestle with thoughts of responsibility for not being able to prevent or anticipate the death. When we hear similar thoughts and wonderings from children it can be especially heartbreaking.

When children come to us with their guilt and regret, often our first impulse is to dismiss or try to take away their feelings. Maybe you’ve heard yourself saying things like:

  • “Don’t feel that way”
  • “Hush, you know that’s not true.”
  • “You couldn’t have known”
  • “It’s not your fault”

This urge to help children stop feeling guilt and regret comes from a loving place. We don’t want to see children burdened with additional suffering. We might also be struggling with similar thoughts, which makes it even harder to hear them from our children. So, what can you do to help in this situation? Start with reminding yourself that listening is one of the most caring and supportive things you can do. Creating space for children to talk about challenging emotions builds trust and demonstrates that you are able to be there for them, no matter what they are wrestling with.

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